Tag Archives: Austin affordability

The Big AISD Question That Nobody Is Asking

By Bill Oakey – November 30, 2017

The question seemed so obvious that I never imagined it wouldn’t be asked. AISD just approved the sale of 8 district properties for a grand total of  $64.8 million. And they approved the purchase of a new site for their headquarters for $28.4 million. That leaves the school district with a cool $36.4 million in extra cash.

I read about this in several news articles, waiting anxiously for the answer to the obvious question. The one that for some odd reason was never asked…

What Are They Going to Do With All That Money??

Austin voters just passed a whopping $1.1 billion AISD bond proposition, by far the largest in history. The mailers in the bond campaign never mentioned the price tag. But they prominently featured a highly misleading statement – “AISD will not raise  the tax rate if the bonds are approved.”

Most citizens are painfully aware that the tax rate has to DECREASE each year to offset skyrocketing home appraisals. So, a carefully crafted promise not to raise the rate leaves plenty of wiggle room for higher taxes on everybody. This lack of disclosure must be a loophole in the 1987 Truth In Taxation law that I proposed and successfully got passed in the Texas Legislative.

I realize that my concerns beg the question of whether AISD needs more money to repair and replace dilapidated facilities. Of course they do. And the root of the problem is the Robin Hood funding formulas that force AISD to send more money back to the State than any other school district in Texas.

To me, that is all the more reason that AISD should handle their finances responsibly. Back in the 1980’s I humorously referred to their board as the Board of Mistrustees of the Austin Inefficient School District. Back then, they consistently had the highest per student costs in 8 out of 11 categories among the largest districts in the state.

While I was standing in line to vote in the recent billion dollar bond election, I heard a disturbing comment from an AISD employee. These were his exact words:

”You wouldn’t believe how much money the administrators spend traveling to all kinds of conferences! That would be enough money to give the teachers a pay raise.” That sounds like a great tip for one of the TV stations to use for an investigation. (Hi there, KXAN…). In any case, we certainly need some immediate disclosure on how the AISD board plans to use that nice chunk of change from the land sales. What is their process for determining such a thing? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Pass the savings on, directly to property taxpayers. (Not likely).

2. Evaluate options based on best practices used by other school districts across the country.

3. Research methods to refinance existing debt.

4. Increase reserves to raise their bond rating and earn the resulting benefits.

We might be able to assume that they are doing some of those things, or possibly something even better. But whatever they decide, they should let the taxpayers know about it as soon as possible…Oh gosh…My apologies for not mentioning the most likely option for AISD to consider. There must be a perfect conference in Brazil or on the French Riviera that would address all of these unanswered questions!

While composing this blog piece, I sat in the Magnolia Cafe on Lake Austin Blvd., surrounded by young AISD students enjoying a nice breakfast. Today is some kind of teacher training day. It was fun to observe the little poignant love scenes in some of the booths. It was like something straight out of “Grease,” “The Breakfast Club,” or “American Graffiti.” These kids will grow up in a very uncertain world. We should wish them all the best of good fortune and happiness.

Update – Response From Melissa Taboada, Austin American-Statesman

Melissa Taboada’s latest article about the land sales can be viewed here. She was kind enough to email me some additional details she has learned about this topic. But many questions still remain. She wrote:

Hi Bill,

The district needs to make the Southfield building compatible to its needs. At Monday night’s board meeting, the district outlined the new central office building could cost $37-$50 million with those changes. In the story, I mentioned that remaining funds from the CAC would go toward the new administration building. The bond projects also total $1.3 billion and to bring the cost down to the $1.1 billion, the district said it will use bond contingency funds, as well as $40 million in land sales.

Hope this information helps,

Melissa Taboada

My Analysis of These Additional Details

Melissa is well-versed on many details, having attended all of the AISD board meetings. However, let’s take a close look at these numbers…

$64.8 Million – Total land sales from 8 properties
$50.0 Million – $28.4 M purchase price + $21.6 M high estimate to refurbish Southfield Bldg.
$14.8 Million – Leftover money from land sales, using high-end building estimate

$64.8 Million – Total land sales from 8 properties
$37.0 Million – $28.4 M purchase price + $8.6 M low estimate to refurbish Southfield Bldg.
$27.8 Million – Leftover money from land sales, using low-end building estimate

These calculations tell us that after fully funding their new headquarters building, AISD will have somewhere between $14.8 and $27.8 million left over for other purposes. These amounts don’t fit very well with AISD’s plan to use bond contingency funds “plus $40 million in land sales” to reduce the cost of the bond projects from $1.3 billion down to the $1.1 billion that appeared on the election ballot. Unless I’m missing some more details, there appears to be a gap of missing money here…

$40 Million – Land sales funds needed to reduce bond projects from $1.3 billion to $1.1 billion
$14.8 Million to $27.8 Million – Land sales available after fully funding Southfield Building
$12.2 Million to $25.2 Million – Apparent funding gap

The gap doesn’t look too bad until you factor in the likelihood of cost overruns for refurbishing the Southfield Building to make it “compatible with AISD’s needs.” Cost overruns tend to spring up on just about everything these days. And the “needs” of AISD’s executives may not be quite the same thing as the taxpayers’ needs. Thanks to all of you readers for bravely wading through the weeds with me on this issue.

Update From Nicole Conley Johnson, AISD Chief Financial Officer

Nicole Conley Johnson

2017/11/30 at 9:21 pm

Good day Bill. I am Nicole Conley Johnson, the CFO of AISD. The subsequent analysis that you’ve done regarding the purchase and rehabilitation of the Southfield site is spot on. There is still a gap to get to the $40 million from land sales. It is anticipated that there could be more properties sold as the bond program is implemented. As it is implemented, several school site could become available for future sales. For example, Rosedale after its rebuilt on the Lucy Read site and/or the proposed school unifications.

Let’s Not Overlook the Elephant(s) In the Room!

Here are two final, very critical questions:

  1. How do the prices on each of the 8 properties that AISD plans to sell, and the purchase price of the Southfield Building compare to the appraised values on TCAD’s official tax rolls?
  2. What are the detailed specifications that AISD has laid out for the refurbishment of the Southfield Building? The cost estimates range from $8.6 million to $21.6 million. Let’s assume that AISD strives to use our tax money just as prudently as Austin families have been forced to do with their own budgets under today’s affordability constraints. Can we get a commitment from AISD’s top brass that they will stick as close as possible to the low-end estimate for their new digs?  And can we get a commitment that they will publish a press release beforehand, telling us exactly what we are getting for that amount of money? (This calls for one new song to be added to the music list below).

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Piece:

  1. “Such An Easy Question” – Elvis Presley
  2. “96 Tears” – Question Mark and the Mysterians
  3. “Hey Schoolgirl” – Tom and Jerry (before they changed their name to Simon & Garfunkel)
  4. “To Sir With Love” – Lulu
  5. “Wonderful World” – Sam Cooke, or the cover version by Herman’s Hermits
  6. “Commitment” – Leann Rimes
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Can The City Council Put The Brakes On Police Pay Raises?

By Bill Oakey – November 28, 2017

Yes.

But that’s not the right question. The question is, do they have the will to do it? At their regular meeting on December 7th, the City Council will face a critical decision that will affect the  General Fund in the annual City Budget for many years to come. This is serious business, and I do not envy the Council members. All 11 of their positions on the dais will become “hot seats” on December 7th.

Staring at affordability projections is really spooky stuff. It’s a lot more comfortable to look the other way. You can kick the can down the road but, by golly, you’ll run headlong into it sooner or later. The other vitally important factor is that we all value the service of our police officers. Austin is one of the safest cities in Texas, if not the country, for its size. So, I would be the last person to suggest that we should short-change them on well-deserved pay.

The fact is that we already have the highest paid police force in Texas. The proposed new contract, approved by the union after negotiations with City staff calls for 9.5% in pay raises over the next five years. With additional stipends included, the total jumps to 12%. The impact on the City’s General Fund was laid out in a public meeting this past May. This was the headline in the Austin Monitor on May 18th: “Mayor Suggests Changes in Public Safety Pay.”

The article starts out with these words:

“Paying for Austin’s public safety needs could add more than $75.9 million to the city’s General Fund budget over the next five years – with more than two-thirds of that funding going to the Austin Police Department, according to the city’s preliminary needs assessment.”

Then, in a later paragraph, this dire warning appears:

“Looking at the projection of public safety needs over the next five years and the city’s projected income, it is clear that even going to the 8 percent rollback rate every year, the City will not be able to meet most of those needs.”

So, public safety salaries could push the General Fund over the edge, and force the City to raise property taxes to the 8% legal maximum every year going forward. And, even if that happens, all of the needed City services covered by the General Fund cannot be met. Fairly simple math will tell you that 8% annual City property tax increases would cause them to double in 9 years and quadruple in 18 years.

During that May City Council Meeting, Mayor Adler suggested that City staff expand their analysis of the public safety costs and other basic needs. And he stated that perhaps some adjustments should be made.

The Big Decision on December 7th Will Not Be Easy

In my current round of affordability meetings with City Council members, one fact has become clear. They cannot predict how the vote on the police contract will turn out. Council Member Ellen Troxclair’s office, often seen as the most conservative, expressed concern over both public safety salaries and the pensions. Council Member Ann Kitchen told me that “It is important to consider all of the cost projections and their implications.”

As an affordability advocate, I have just one piece of advice for each City Council member. Never be afraid to do what you really believe is the right thing. When in doubt about an issue like this, don’t just rely on verbal prowess and the power of persuasion. Sometimes it may be best to remain relatively quiet and…

Just Let the Numbers Do the Talking!

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Piece:

  1. “Murder By Numbers” – The Police
  2. “One For the Wonder” – Sammy Kaye
  3. “Heartaches By the Number” – Willie Nelson (from 1966)
  4. “Fool Number One” – Brenda Lee
  5. “One” – Three Dog Night

Statesman Covers Soccer Stadium Public Vote Issue

By Bill Oakey, November 25, 2017

Philip Jankowski did a pretty thorough job of covering the issue. (See my blog posting with the legal details). By the way, I would never support a soccer stadium at Butler Park! Maybe at Decker Lake, but only if the neighborhood association supported it.

Austin American-Statesman

Bringing pro soccer team to Austin, building stadium may trigger vote

By Philip Jankowski, November 24, 2017

Using parkland as the new home for a Major League Soccer stadium could require voter approval.

While local soccer enthusiasts might be elated at the news that a Major League Soccer team is serious about making Austin its home, they might have to persuade Austin residents at large to approve bringing the city’s first professional sports franchise.

An election over bringing the Crew SC soccer team — currently based in Columbus, Ohio — to Austin for the 2019 season is becoming a growing possibility as parkland in the core of the city is emerging as a potential location for a stadium that would need to seat at least 20,000 people.

Such a drastic change to parkland would be reminiscent of an effort two years ago to build world-class golf courses in far East Austin, something that the city ultimately said would likely need an election.

While Crew SC owner Anthony Precourt has promised he won’t use taxpayer money to build a facility, the economics would make much more sense if the city were able to provide the land for it free of charge.

To that end, the Austin City Council has ordered the city to research what city-owned land could be used for a MLS stadium, including parkland. Several media reports show that Butler Shores Metropolitan Park has emerged as the most attractive location for Precourt.

The park sits in a choice spot along Lady Bird Lake, just behind the Zach Theatre where Barton Creek empties into the Lady Bird Lake. It also meets Precourt’s goal of having a stadium in the city’s core.

But repurposing the parkland would likely trigger a public election, something Precourt’s lobbyist Richard Suttle said Precourt’s company would prefer to avoid.

Suttle said the company has conducted surveys leading it to believe voters would approve a proposal to bring the team to Austin. But holding an election could threaten Precourt’s desired timeline for a move to Austin for the 2019 MLS season.

Precourt would like to have a site for a stadium picked by Jan. 1 and an agreement with the city in place by the summer. Meetings those deadlines would be difficult if the city held an election in either March or May, and outright impossible if a soccer election were held in November 2018.

“We are not afraid of an election on bringing in MLS to Austin,” Suttle told the American-Statesman. “The only concern I can think of is we have a finite amount of time to take advantage of this opportunity and we would have to evaluate whether an election scenario fits into the scheduling.”

Texas law states that no parkland can be sold at any price without voter approval. Austin’s city charter underlines the law, adding restrictions for leasing parkland as well. A drastic change in purpose for parkland would also trigger an election under state law.

But laws mandating an election are not entirely ironclad. Suttle said a stadium could be considered a parkland use. Concession contracts do permit government land to be used for private business purposes. The city also refused to give a definitive answer to whether an election would be necessary.

Council Member Kathie Tovo, who spearheaded a resolution to search for city-owned land as a possible home for a MLS stadium, said she sees similarities to a previous attempt to build a world-class golf course on parkland in 2015.

Tovo said that when the council was considering building the PGA-level golf courses at Walter E. Long Metropolitan Park, the contract before the council felt like “a way of skirting a vote.”

The plan had firm support from then-City Manager Marc Ott, but stalled after Ott signaled that having an election would likely be the best course of action. In the end, the council opted to request a new master plan for the entire park.

Voters also narrowly defeated a proposal to turn a portion of the park into a hotel and golf courses in 2000.

Tovo told the Statesman the city might be best served by holding an election if the council attempts a license agreement with Precourt for a stadium. She said her resolution asking the city’s staff to identify city-owned properties that could serve as a possible stadium location was a way for the city to get ahead of the likely large amounts of input it would receive if parkland is chosen.

“It was important to me that we approach any consideration of locating a soccer stadium in a way different from the Walter E. Long discussion several years ago,” she said. “I want to make sure that at the outset we discuss whether community benefits outweigh the loss of a public space.”

But Tovo said she wanted to hear what the city attorney’s office thinks about whether an election would be required.

Austin resident Bill Oakey, a retired accountant who blogs about affordability, has researched the laws and said that using parkland for a stadium would “absolutely” require an election. The scale of the project would move it beyond smaller concession contracts, and Oakey said he would support a large-scale, public-private partnership if it brought in revenue for the city’s parks.

“That would be a win-win, but it would have to come with an election,” he said.

And even with indications that voters might support it, Circuit of the Americas Chair Bobby Epstein, who is working to bring a minor league team from the United Soccer League to the track’s land in 2019, said there is always a risk when voters are involved.

“The more hurdles you have to jump over, certainly the more challenging the goal becomes,” Epstein said.

KXAN Investigates Millions in Uncollected City Parking Tickets

Follow on Twitter – @AAffordability

By Bill Oakey, November 21, 2017

More than once I have had to put my socks back on after having them knocked off by a KXAN investigation. This morning I was jolted awake by the voice of top news reporter, Kylie McGivern on the radio. She was talking up the latest KXAN investigation about uncollected City parking tickets. Maybe I was still asleep, but it sounded like she said they add up to over $7 million! If it’s even close to that, let’s hope some of it can be recovered quickly. If they don’t really need the money, why are we having to pay for so much for parking?

To find out all the details, set your DVR’s or just plop down on the couch and tune in to KXAN tonight at 10:00. It’s a riot to watch their reporters look public officials in the eye, and ask what in the heck is going on. Quite often, we learn in the ensuing days or weeks that some important reforms have taken place as a result of a KXAN investigation. Since I don’t personally know anybody bold enough to shake things up like that, I find it quite fascinating to behold. I might just try to meet this Kylie McGivern sometime…

KXAN Investigative Reporter, Kylie McGivern

You can still catch up on some of KXAN’s previous investigations. There’s a lot of smoke left in some of them, including the one on toll road bill collection “customer service.” I plan to delve into that after Thanksgiving. Check out their website for any investigations that you might have missed. Here are just a few really juicy ones:

  1. TxTag Troubles: Nearly $1 Billion Added to TxTag Accounts as Billing Woes Continue
  2. HOA Law Loophole Leaves Some Homeowners Powerless
  3. Your Driver License Information Is Being Sold By the State for a Profit
  4. Risky Rides: Unscrupulous Dealerships Selling Salvage Vehicles to Customers
  5. Visit Austin Spent Thousands of Dollars In Concert Tickets, Alcohol, Jewelry

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Posting:

“Dirty Laundry” – Don Henly

Can Someone Step Forward and Save the Pump Project?

Follow on Twitter – @AAffordability

By Bill Oakey – November 20, 2017

The highly acclaimed East Austin Studio Tour (EAST) got a nasty jolt this past weekend when the large group of artists at the Pump Project were greeted with devastating news. They may have to pack up and leave their coveted studios by sometime in April. A sale of the property is in the works. This comes on the heels of a very expensive remodeling of the facility just a couple of years ago.

This is an opportunity for the City and local business leaders to come together quickly and find a solution, before it’s too late. Does the City have any tools available that can be put into action soon enough to help? Fortunately, I have several affordability meetings, starting tomorrow with the Mayor’s Office and several other Council members. I will be asking that question. One thing I plan to suggest is that they utilize their business contacts to see if a philanthropic art supporter or group could step forward and help. I would also hope that they would reach out to the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. The worst-case scenario would be a domino effect that would threaten the survival of the EAST festival.

Below is the front page notice on the Pump Project’s website:

Pump No More
11/17/2017

DONATE TO OUR RELOCATION FUND

For over a decade, Pump Project Art Complex has been proud to call the bright yellow warehouse on Shady Lane home. This big, old building has been our place for community and creativity for 12 years.

Our plan was to raise money for the needed CODE improvements – but the landlord has now decided against renewing our lease.

While we are still seeking a way in which we might be able to stay in our iconic big bright yellow building, it’s a longshot, so we have decided to refocus our efforts on relocating.

Over the next few months, we will be looking for a new home – we are asking all those who support the artist community here in Austin to donate whatever you can to help Pump Project in this effort.

Donate

WHO WE ARE
We are a group of over 40 artists and craftspeople who call Pump Project Art Complex home. Pump Project Art Complex is a 501(c)3 non-profit, East Austin art space that provides working studios and gallery facilities to emerging and established artists.
Our story began in in 2005 as Shady Tree Studios with a few artists, an old empty warehouse, and a substantial amount of initiative. In the past twelve years Pump Project has become a staple of the Austin art community. We serve the community with year-round art exhibition programming in our 1,000 sq. ft. gallery space. We are also a major stop on the East Austin Studio Tour each year, a testament to the great work of our members and the encouraging culture that Austin has for its artists.
Over the last 12 years, we have provided exhibition facilities and affordable studio space for hundreds of artists in the Austin community, and we are very proud of the work we have done. Your donation, in any amount, will help us in our efforts to relocate and to keep our community going.

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Piece:

  1. “The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane” – The Ames Brothers, or the Archie Bleyer version
  2. “(I’ll Be There) Before the Next Teardrop Falls” – Freddy Fender
  3. “Help” – The Beatles
  4. “Pictures and Paintings” – Charlie Rich
  5. “Just In Time” – Frank Sinatra
  6. “Wrecking Ball” – Emmylou Harris
  7. “25 Minutes to Go” – Johnny Cash (In honor of Threadgill’s on Riverside for getting a stay of execution from their landlord)

Are You Ready For Only Two Car Lanes On South Lamar?

Follow on Twitter – @AAffordability

By Bill Oakey – November 19, 2017

Update: I have been advised by a top City official that the elements described in the City report cited here are recommendations, rather than a final plan. However, the recommendations may carry a significant amount of weight. It will be up to folks in the community to stay actively engaged. We have an important opportunity to discuss our feelings about the recommendations and to let our voices be heard.

Unless people organize and speak out really fast, we will end up with ONLY ONE CAR LANE IN EACH DIRECTION ON SOUTH LAMAR, from Riverside Dr. to Ben White. This is one of the City’s corridor plans, to be funded by the 2016 mobility bonds approved by voters. These plans were originally based on the assumption that Austin would get a citywide rail system, which now would probably cost at least $15-$20 billion.

The South Lamar Plan includes:

– A loss of 3.3 miles of travel lanes.

– One bike lane in each direction.

– One BUS-ONLY lane in each direction. The official project report states that these lanes would be transit-only “during peak hours, when supported by ridership (See Page 6-17 of the report). Capital Metro just eliminated 13 bus routes. So, good luck taking the bus to work.

– Not one, not two, but THREE medians in some places, with pretty trees (taxpayer cost to maintain the trees not disclosed).

– The medians will replace the continuous turn lanes and will CUT OFF ACCESS TO BUSINESSES!

– The number of medians varies on different stretches of the road.

– Most intersections will have separate turn lanes.

– Oh, and one last “improvement” – ONE LANE IN EACH DIRECTION LEFT FOR CARS! (Except during peak hours – maybe).

And you thought you voted for those mobility bonds to relieve traffic congestion?

If you want to avoid total gridlock, perhaps you could quit your job and drive on S. Lamar during the middle of the day. Hey, Lamar is the busiest non-highway, north-south roadway in the City. It is simply NOT WIDE ENOUGH to give up traffic lanes. In addition:

1. South Lamar can barely handle the traffic it has now!

2. Rapid-speed buses may help some, but future growth will obviously create increased congestion. If a dam were about to burst, would you spend millions of dollars to REDUCE the structural supports on that dam?

3. The idea that most of the throngs of new people moving here won’t be using cars is either:
a. Poppycock b. Horsefeathers or, for our British friends, c. Tommyrot.

But Wait – There’s a Study That Explains Everything…

A university study, cited below this section, offers a somewhat comical response to business concerns over the raised medians. My favorite quote: “The typical business may be able to overcome some reduction of access if it offers good, reliable service.” Hmm! Clearly, such a massive road overhaul would demand good coordination between City officials and concerned businesses.

Homeowners have the option of surrendering their houses to the bulldozers and moving into a new high-rise on South Lamar. Right next to the traffic noise. The rent will cost two or three times your mortgage. But you will be able to walk, skateboard or bike your way up to the hoity-toity shops that sell designer ice cream for $15 a scoop and $1,500 women’s handbags.

To learn more about all of the City’s corridor bond projects, sign up for newsletters, or to provide feedback, click here. To read the official recommendations for South Lamar, click here. Below is an Austin American-Statesman summary of all the corridor plans. It shows that 15 lane-miles will be eliminated.

Austin Bond Plan Includes Both More and Fewer Car Lanes
By Ben Wear, Austin American-Statesman, Saturday, October 01, 2016

Paul Counter has heard what the city has in mind for South Lamar Boulevard, about how the center “chicken lane” his customers use to get into and out of Matt’s El Rancho’s parking lot would be replaced with a raised median that would cut off left turns. He’s not happy about it.

“I’m confused as to how taking out the center turn lane is a good thing,” said Counter, the restaurant’s general manager. “It’s really frustrating when you’re trying to operate a business and this sort of stuff is going on.”

If the city of Austin’s $720 million transportation bond passes Nov. 8, that sort of stuff, and a lot of other changes to major Austin roads, would go on over the next six to eight years. At least 14 miles of travel lanes would be added in various places, while roughly 15 lane-miles would be lost to through traffic in other spots, mostly to make way for buses.

Another 20 lane-miles of continuous center turn lanes — like the one on South Lamar — would be replaced with center medians that would limit where traffic can turn. The city and its engineers see this change as a beneficial trade-off, speeding traffic and cutting accidents even as it reduces access to businesses along the road.

Mayor Steve Adler, whose staff shepherded the bond proposal through a gantlet of community groups and then the City Council, said the proposed “smart corridor” changes, even with the lost lanes, would improve traffic congestion and safety.

In at least one case, East Riverside Drive, Adler said the proposed elimination of two lanes to make way for bus-only lanes would be subject to review to make sure that it reduces traffic congestion rather than exacerbates it.

“There is a choice and a trade-off with all things that government does,” Adler said last week in an interview with the American-Statesman. “Sometimes, there’s a prioritization that has to be made between congestion relief and the wishes of some businesses along the road.”

What goes where

The bond proposal has three major elements: a $482 million piece that would provide money for overhauls of major roads like South Lamar; $137 million for bike, sidewalk, trail, safety and repair projects on streets throughout the city; and $101 million for expansions of several highways and major roads in West and Northwest Austin.

That last piece would actually add length to the local road system, perhaps as much as 15 lane-miles on Parmer Lane, Spicewood Springs Road, RM 620 and RM 2222.

Those projects include construction of a short bypass road from RM 620 to RM 2222 to the east, along with added lanes on both roads. Engineers believe this project could significantly reduce a miles-long morning backup for commuters and those headed to Vandegrift High School.

On the other side of the coin, the corridor program would dedicate some travel lanes to buses and replace the continuous center turn lanes with those limited-access medians. Adler argues the turn lane changes would allow traffic to flow faster, smoother and with fewer fender-benders, as people getting in and out of the center turn lanes cause constant minor slowdowns that add up to significant congestion.

Findings on delays, safety

A 1997 University of Nebraska study, commissioned by the federal Transportation Research Board, provides some backup to the mayor’s assertions, at least on safety.

The researchers compared the traffic and safety conditions of four-lane roads, five-lane roads with a two-way turn lane and four-lane roads with center medians. The undivided four-lane roads, with people backing up traffic in the inner lane to make lefts, were both much slower and more dangerous than the other alternatives.

But between the two choices at play in the bond proposition — a road with a center turn lane or with a median — the two designs “yield similar delays,” the 143-page study says. The raised medians, however, have “slightly higher delays” in areas with heavy traffic volumes or an unusual volume of left-turns.

Those delays can become significant if the left turn bays cut into that median are not sufficiently long to allow turners to queue up, University of Texas transportation professor Randy Machemehl told the Statesman. If the bays are too short, he said, “it takes a lane out of service.”

The study also said streets with the medians “appear to be associated with fewer accidents” than those with center turn lanes, particularly when traffic volume tops 20,000 vehicles a day. All four of the affected Austin corridors are well above that traffic level, according to 2014 counts. The study acknowledges adding raised medians can hurt businesses, but it said “the typical business may be able to overcome some reduction of access if it offers good, reliable service.”

Inconvenient but beneficial

Roger Falk with the Travis County Taxpayers Union, which opposes the bond proposition, called it “a heartless plan with regard to those businesses” along the corridors. People will need to make U-turns to reach restaurants and stores on the opposite side of the road, he said, either increasing traffic use or discouraging people from visiting the businesses.

But Ward Tisdale, president of the Real Estate Council of Austin, one of several business groups to endorse the bond proposition, said updating city arterials, including with added bike lanes and wider sidewalks, will encourage dense development in the central city. The city needs the housing and the property taxes growing from the development, he said.

“On the whole, it’s going to be beneficial in getting people from point A to point B in Austin, and it is long overdue,” Tisdale said. “We’ve got to take the blinders off. People move to Austin, Texas. They always have. So we have to plan for them this time, and stop pretending this city isn’t changing.”

But that change will take a toll for some, including during the inevitably disruptive construction phase. Counter, with Matt’s El Rancho, said the iconic Tex-Mex restaurant would be able to weather the change. “It’ll be inconvenient for our guests, but I don’t think it’s going to hurt us that much because people are willing to wait an hour for a table,” he said. “People will find a way to get here. But I feel bad for some of the mom-and-pop businesses.”

CHANGING LANES

The road proposals in Austin’s $720 million bond would in some cases replace traffic lanes with bus-only lanes, parking or bikeways. In several of the “smart corridor” plans, continuous center turn lanes would be replaced with raised, vegetated medians. The bond proposals also include lane additions in a few cases.

Lost travel lanes (approximately 15 lane-miles)

East Riverside Drive (I-35 to Texas 71, 3 miles): One travel lane each way replaced by bus-only lanes.

South Lamar Boulevard (Riverside Drive to Ben White Boulevard, 3.3 miles): One lane in each direction becomes bus-only during rush hours.

Guadalupe Street (MLK Jr. Boulevard to West 29th Street, 1 mile): One lane each direction replaced by bus-only lanes.

Lost center turn lanes, replaced by medians (approximately 20 lane miles)

South Lamar Boulevard (3.3 miles)

North Lamar Boulevard (U.S. 183 to Parmer Lane, 5 miles)

Airport Boulevard (Lamar Boulevard to U.S 183, 6.5 miles)

Burnet Road (Koenig Lane to MoPac Boulevard, 5 miles)

Added lanes (at least 14 lane-miles)

Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (U.S. 183 to east of Decker Lane, 2 miles): One added lane each direction.

Parmer Lane (Texas 45 North tollway to RM 1431, 3 miles): Added third lane in each direction.

RM 620 to RM 2222 bypass (half-mile): A new four-lane road from RM 620 to RM 2222, plus added northbound lane on RM 620 from Steiner Ranch Boulevard to the bypass, and an added eastbound lane on RM 2222 from the bypass to McNeil Road.

Spicewood Springs Road (west of Mesa Drive to Loop 360, ¾ of a mile): Added lane in each direction.

Loop 360 and Westlake Drive: Build overpass and associated frontage roads.

Source: City of Austin

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Piece:

  1. “Traffic Jam” – James Taylor
  2. “Another Day of Sun” – From “La La Land”
  3. “Summer In the City” – The Lovin’ Spoonful
  4. “The Road Goes On Forever” – The Highwaymen
  5. “Road Hog” – John D. Loudermilk

Bombshell – Gov. Abbott & Lt. Gov. Patrick Quash I-35 Toll Lane Plan!

By Bill Oakey – November 18, 2017

The plot thickens in one of the wildest and most twisted tales in Texas transportation history. In a recent blog posting, I lamented the fact that most of our local officials were kept in the dark about the massive $8 billion plan to put 4 new “managed toll lanes” on I-35.  The press release announcing the project caught Travis County Commissioners completely off guard, including the “Road Warriar,” Commissioner Gerald Daugherty. I submitted a detailed list of questions to  quite a few local officials, only to be told that they had not been included in the process. And that they had just as many questions of their own. Really? Yes, really.

Now the whole plan has been blown to bits by both Gov. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. In a revealing report, the Texas Tribune explains that in 2014 and 2015, statewide voters approved two Constitutional amendments for highway funding. Each of them authorized the State to send billions of tax dollars to the Texas Department of Transportation, specifically for non-tolled roadway projects. The State’s two top leaders said they acted on behalf of Legislators and their constituents. These folks have complained loudly about road-building plans across the State that contain mostly managed toll lanes. The bombshell hit late Thursday, when State transportation officials announced that they are dropping several of the major toll lane plans, including the one for I-35.

But the drama doesn’t end there. The State Attorney General has been asked to issue an opinion on the legality of an accounting trick that was built into the toll lane plans. The Transportation Dept. had sought to use funds from the voter-approved tax dollars to build or upgrade free lanes. And then use a mixture of Federal money and other funds to build toll lanes next to the free lanes. While you are reading this, heads are rolling and a battle rages over who gets to do what with a limited amount of transportation dollars.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick released this statement:

AUSTIN – Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick issued the following statement today in response to recent reports that the latest Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) Unified Transportation Plan (UTP) includes the addition of 15 managed toll lanes:

“I oppose adding any additional toll lanes to TxDOT’s UTP. I fought against increasing the state’s reliance on toll roads as a state senator and I have continued that fight as lieutenant governor. The Texas Legislature worked hard to pass Proposition 7 in 2015 to provide billions in funding for transportation infrastructure to help eliminate the state’s need for additional toll roads. Eliminating the need for tolls was one of the primary reasons the Texas Legislature passed Prop 7 and why Texas voters approved it. No new toll roads have been approved by the Senate or the House in the last two sessions and legislators I have spoken with are very unhappy that the Commission seems now to be going in a direction that opposes the will of the legislature and the majority of Texans.

“I spoke with TxDOT Commissioner Bruce Bugg yesterday and reminded him of the legislature’s commitment to reducing tolls. I sent a letter to the Commissioner today asking him to revise the UTP and develop a plan that contains no additional toll lanes.”

To view Lt. Gov. Patrick’s letter to Commissioner Bugg click here.

 What Are the Pros and Cons of Managed Toll Lanes?

I remain both fascinated and befuddled by the theory for managed toll lanes. Advocates claim that they reduce congestion better than free lanes. Why? Because, they say, newly added free lanes would fill up quickly. Therefore, high-priced tolls serve as a wedge to keep too many drivers from clogging up the roads. But let’s step back from that argument for a moment. What if people absolutely need to use that road to get somewhere? Increased population drives up the demand. Keep pouring water into a bucket, and sooner or later, it will overflow. Managed toll lanes reduce the capacity, while year after year the demand keeps rising. Gosh, you don’t suppose that a City like Austin could get so crowded that we can’t accommodate any more people. Of course not. Never! We need to recruit more people to come here as fast as they can…More! More!

With managed toll lanes, the big winners are the wealthy folks who can cruise past everybody else in the faster moving lanes. What many Texans may not know is that managed toll lanes in countless other cities started out with “manageable” rates. Then over time, as congestion increased, they jacked up the rates. Google it and you will see $14 and higher peak toll rates popping up all over the country. Try doing the math on a daily commute with $14 times 2, times 21 workdays per month. Ka-Ching, that’s $588.00! And that assumes that you can get there without using more than one toll road. (See another Texas Tribune article, “Texans Driven Mad As Tolls Burn Holes In Their Wallets.”)

So, What Happens Next?

Lucky us! We’re going to get a citywide rail system. That won’t cost more than $15 or $20 billion. And if you believe that, I’ve got another promise for you. Some sweet day, the Legislature will wake up and realize that balancing State budgets on the backs of residential property taxpayers has reached its sustainable limit. All they have to do is project it out on a chart for the next five years and the next ten years. Or else they can ignore the problem and wait for the public backlash.

Gosh, you don’t suppose businesses could pay their fair share of taxes? You don’t suppose they could pay sustainable wages? Sorry, I just get crazy ideas once in a while. Please don’t hold it against me.

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Piece:

  1. “If I Said You Had a Beautiful Body (Would You Hold It Against Me)” – The Bellamy Brothers
  2. “Life In the Fast Lane” – The Desperado Dreamers (Eagles Tribute)
  3. “On the Road Again” – Willie Nelson
  4. “Hot Rod Lincoln” – Johnny Bond
  5. “Lost Highway” – Johnny Horton