With the election only weeks away (and early voting starting on Monday) the discussion of the two large bond packages is a critical topic in our community. At this week’s Leadership Austin Engage Breakfast we heard an in-depth and often spirited debate from leaders invested in opposite sides of the propositions. Panelists included Gerald Daughtery, Travis County Commissioner Pct. 3; Roger Falk, advisor and analyst, Travis County Taxpayers Union; Jeffrey Richard, Chair, Austin Community College Board of Trustees; and Martha Smiley, Former Vice Chair, Regional Mobility, The Austin Chamber of Commerce. KXAN news anchor Shannon Wolfson moderated the discussion and Sophia Beausoleil, also of KXAN, fielded questions from the audience.

Paul Hilgers, CEO of the Austin Board of REALTORS®, introduced the panelists and set the stage for the discussion with some thoughts on respecting differing opinions. “Engaging first starts with listening. To truly engage in very difficult decisions…requires silence. Not thinking about why this person is wrong but instead ‘Why does this person think they are right?’ To me that’s the biggest challenge to being really engaged.”

Wolfson shared an overview of the bond packages:

Proposition 1, also referred to as the rail bond or the transportation bond, will ask voters to approve $600 million that would be put toward constructing the rail system. The other portion of the cost is expected to be covered by federal funds and a condition of the bond states that the city must also provide or obtain $400 million to pay for roadway improvements. The city finance office estimates taxes on a $200,000 home would be raised an average of $150 a year if this bond passes.

The second issue is the bond package from ACC, also called the education bond. These are actually three separate propositions.
• Prop 1: planning and construction for future growth.
• Prop 2: fund campus growth, renovations, health and safety issues.
• Prop 3: maintenance and operations tax cap election.

Propositions 1 and 2 total $386 million–this would amount to a 2-cent increase in the property tax rate, to be phased in over time. If the first two bond propositions pass, a home valued at $200,000 would increase approximately $40 a year, after the standard homestead exemption, or an additional $16 a year for seniors and homeowners with disabilities. If the maintenance and operations (M&O) tax cap measure passes a home valued at $200,000 would see a $58 increase per year or $24 for seniors and homeowners with disabilities.

Opportunities and Challenges of the ACC Bond

As Jeffrey Richard explained, ACC is really ACC District. “It’s not the small fledgling institution that it was in the 1970s when it was started in a room at AISD. It has grown to something like 30 school districts. If the Austin Chamber of Commerce is right and 110 people every 24 hours move into this area, those people are going to need jobs or require job training, and when those jobs change and when new technology comes they are going to need to be retrained. When they do that, they typically go to ACC.”

Roger Falk agreed that there’s no debate that we need a good community college. Every city does. But in its earlier years, Falk explained, ACC didn’t tax the citizens of Travis County. It operated based on other types of funding. “It’s no longer a local school,” he said. “It still gets 75% of its tax revenues from Travis County, but it operates as far as Fredericksburg and Gonzales. It has become an empire that is very costly to maintain.”

Gerald Daugherty weighed in with his thoughts. “We are challenged because in the 9 years that I have been in the elected position, I have never seen people as frightened as they are about being able to stay and afford to live in this community. It really is going to get down to affordability.”

Martha Smiley believes it comes down to a broad vision for the community. “We have to take the most important things for our community and we have to provide those for our people or we will start going backwards. Two of those things are educating our workforce and providing mobility for our people. What ACC is doing for this region and for this community in training our workforce for tomorrow cannot be replicated and cannot be shortchanged.”

Perspectives on the Rail Bond

Traffic congestion and growth are at the heart of the rail bond issue. More and more people are coming into the city core, according to Smiley, and that’s by design. “We’ve encouraged density and development downtown but what we haven’t done until this bond proposition is address traffic.”

According to Smiley, the transportation experts who studied all the data determined that of all the solutions, long-term, urban rail makes the best sense. She added, “And it’s the only form of transportation we can provide that will not be built with our local dollars unless we get matching dollars from the federal government.

Daughtery believes that public transportation does have a place in the community, but that we have already spent too much on alternative transportation and have seen unimpressive results. “We voted in 1985 to create Capital Metro. They have spent over $3 billion of local tax dollars on helping with an alternative mode of transportation…and that’s before you take all the federal money.”

He also says people just aren’t using public transportation enough. All of us wish we could wake up each morning and miraculously have fewer people in their single occupancy vehicle, he said, but that’s not how people are traveling. “We’ve got choices in this community: we have 3-4 kinds of busses, carpool, work from home. You don’t have to get in the tax payer’s pocket. I would gladly promote it if I honestly though it would work.”
Regarding the effectiveness of the rail system, Smiley said, “Let’s don’t kid ourselves. We are a growing city. If we say yes to the system, it won’t be built for 8 years. We are planning for the future.” A successful urban rail system is part of a complete plan including neighborhood bus routes, rapid bus lines, and commuter rail. Smiley addressed ridership questions by pointing to public transportation systems in cities like D.C. and Denver, which both have successful rail systems that started with approximately 5 miles of rail and the same ridership being projected for Austin.

Falk strongly disagreed, saying, “This does nothing for traffic congestion except take the money away from real solutions that are going to deal with the back-ups on MoPac, 360 and 183 N, 71. “Don’t be fooled, much of that money is going to rail infrastructure.”

Daughtery and Falk both pointed to the capacity and scalability of busses. Daughtery believes the city can move people for less than $145 million a mile using busses and dedicated bus lanes. Smiley argued that data suggests it would take 15 busses an hour going through a traffic light, to carry the same number of people that one rail car running every 10 minutes can carry.

Final Thoughts

1. Gerald Daugherty: Go to NoRailTax.com. We do give suggestions on what needs to be done with mobility and traffic. Think long and hard before you are willing to sign off on $1.38 billion that will be gone, and it is the hope, the hope, that something will be done with mobility and transportation.

2. Martha Smiley: I look back at the many decisions we’ve made in this community: building MoPac, the bridge at 360, many decisions that have been contentious every one of them. Can you imagine where we would if we had just said no? If we don’t say yes and get started on solving these transportation problems this time it will be another 10 to 15 years before we have another big, bold transportation solution. Visit LetsGoAustin.org.

3. Roger Falk: I’ve lived here 40 plus years as well and seen all the change. You can go to our website and we have a fairly lengthy transportation study recommendation there. Visit TCTunion.com.

4. Jeffrey Richard: I suggest you go to two websites: Yes4ACC.com and AustinCC.edu/bond, which is the main fact-finding website.

5. Go vote! Early voting starts on October 20th and you’ll need to bring your I.D.

Full Audio of the Event

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