by Steven Zettner, editor
For decades, Austin residents have paid county taxes that mainly fund infrastructure outside the city limits. That model made sense when growth was suburban. If growth is to be directed inward, the County’s investment model should adapt. Travis County candidates should speak to capital improvements priorities in their campaign messaging.
The existing arrangement is straight-forward: municipal areas like Austin “own” roads, bridges and parks within their boundaries, and Travis County “owns” roads, bridges and parks outside city limits. The county’s investment is mainly paid for by taxpayers inside city limits. But because the City is expected to annex outlying areas, it can be argued that urban taxpayers eventually recoup their investment.
That model is breaking down. Planners now see suburban growth as loss-making. They want development to occur back inside the city limits. Much of the new infill development is targeting suburban areas like North Austin that don’t have walkable infrastructure – sidewalks, plazas, parks, or smaller block sizes. To be successful long-term, these places will need enormous upfront investment.
The City of Austin alone can’t provide that upfront investment.
To give an idea of the scale of the problem, consider the City of Austin 2012 bond package. City departments identified $1.5 billion in needed capital improvements, much of that infrastructure like sidewalks needed to support the walkable urbanism enshrined in the Imagine Austin plan. But after a lot of soul-searching, the City could only ask for $380 million. (It seems Austin’s hard-pressed taxpayers are in a rebellious mood.)
North Austin desperately needs public space and transportation improvements to support the City’s planned growth. Yet Austin Parks Department in the 2012 bond package only asked for $4 million to buy new urban park space. That’s one or two urban parks over a 5-7 year period, not for North Austin, but for the entire city.
Meanwhile, Travis County has actually reduced its open space portfolio in the urban core. The county in 2007 sold off the Burnet Rd Farmer’s Market with no provision for public space, has gradually shrunk its open space commitment for a future redevelopment of its Airport Blvd facility, and is spending all of the $206 million 2011 bond money it raised for open space and transportation on projects outside of Austin. Click link to see map.
Open space is a special concern – if you don’t secure it BEFORE development happens, you’ll never get it. Just one policy suggestion – Travis County could help to get Austin through the current investment crisis by land banking urban properties suitable for parks, trails or transit plazas, then selling the space to Austin in the future.
All five county judge and District 2 candidates have been invited to discuss this topic on AustinDistrict7.org. No doubt there are some challenges with re-assessing a decades-old arrangement. Let’s have the candidates explain those challenges, and what can be done to address a major long-term risk that Austin and Travis County share together.