Wear: In November elections, Austin road spending may be on the menu with urban rail

By May 5, 2014 July 29th, 2014 No Comments

Waiter, I’d like a 16-ounce urban rail system, with a side order of roads.

Or maybe a rail-and-roads casserole. How about an urban rail torte, with some powdered roads sprinkled on top?

Pick your metaphor.

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell and other rail supporters, it surfaced last week, are considering sweetening what is likely to be a November urban rail bond proposal of a half-billion dollars or so with a couple of hundred million dollars of road spending. And what they have in mind is a single bond proposal, not two side-by-side ballot questions on which voters could say yes to rail and no to roads, or vice versa. All or nothing, in other words.

You don’t need a degree from the Kennedy School of Government to see what they’re about. The urban rail proposal in its still-emerging form hasn’t been polling well, at least in the one relatively recent poll that became public. So, throw some significant road spending in with it, the logic goes, and maybe you bring in more “yes” voters.

Rail fans, though some might find road spending distasteful enough to vote no, would probably hang on. And some people who think roads are the answer might still object enough to a huge investment in rail (and the possibility of rail tracks displacing some car lanes, as in an East Riverside Drive study I reported on Friday) that they’ll say, “Heck, no.” But in what is likely to be a close election, it takes only a swing of a few percentage points to make a difference.

And then there’s money. Not the rail-building kind, but the rail-promoting variety.

Some folks I talked to said key Austin business executives had been approached in recent months to create a political action committee to raise money and campaign this fall for the urban rail proposal. Can do, they reportedly said, but only if there is some road spending thrown in. A hefty figure of $200 million to $300 million for roads emerged.

The projects, I’m told, would have to expand road capacity, as opposed to going to sidewalks or bike lanes, for instance; not involve toll roads; be for projects likely to occur sooner rather than later; and, because this is a city bond election, be within the Austin city limits.

Reportedly, this has turned out to be more difficult than you might suppose.

Most of the larger projects that are teed up, ready to go or nearly so are prospective tollways. Or they’re out in unincorporated Travis County, such as ongoing projects to widen Texas 71 and U.S. 290 southwest of town. Some potential ideas, like adding flyover bridges at U.S. 183 and Interstate 35 where there are only two currently or overpasses on Loop 360, are not even in the preliminary stages of design.

Of course, the Texas Department of Transportation, with some city money, has been studying how to expand the car-carrying capacity of I-35 for the past couple of years. Last year, the state agency produced a long list of potential fixes. The cost for doing this, including adding a toll lane on each side from Round Rock to Buda, is several billion dollars, TxDOT officials told me last month. But a city contribution of a couple of hundred million dollars would be a healthy start.

One insider told me that I-35 is not a good candidate, that plans and required environmental studies are not far enough along to satisfy the potential campaign organizers’ criteria. But Leffingwell wouldn’t rule out I-35.

As for a list, Leffingwell said one doesn’t exist at this point, less than four months before the Austin City Council would have to call an election and set the ballot language. That’s pretty late, as these things go. The city normally sets up citizen bond advisory committees a year or more out from an election, and they go through an exhaustive sifting of potential bond projects.

That won’t happen here, given the timing. But Leffingwell said that if roads are added to this bond proposal, he anticipates that specific projects would be made public. We’ll see.

One more important thing to consider: Is it legal to combine the rail spending and road spending in one up-or-down bond proposition? Leffingwell and others said the city attorney’s office is looking into the question.

That isn’t likely to be a problem. The city’s 2010 and 2012 transportation bond proposals — both approved by the public — combined all sorts of projects for getting around, including roads, sidewalks, bike lanes and, in a conspicuous and controversial example, $17.4 million for the boardwalk project in 2010.

Hard to argue that urban rail and roads are any less related than the grab bag of items in those two elections.

So creating a stew of rail and road spending is probably legal. The better question is whether it is palatable. Some people might prefer their government spending a la carte.

Read the full article here.