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Council surprised by Watson's transportation bond-election proposal

Monday, January 24, 2000 by

Turnpike chief says the idea originated with him

Pete Winstead, chairman of the Texas Turnpike Authority, told In Fact Daily that the idea to couple highway bond funds with the light rail election as a package for voters was an idea he presented to an aide to Mayor Kirk Watson a year ago. He said he recently met with Watson and "I told the mayor one way to win a light-rail project would be to combine it with highway road money. I'm glad to see something's happening." Winstead said, "We need a sustained, predictable way to get road money. For the last few years we've been finding it under rocks. My feeling was if we could combine road and rail, kind of like the Denver model, we could call it Austin Mobility 2000. Vote Propositions 1 and 2." The turnpike chairman said he would like to see the same coalition put together again as formed for the November 1998 bond election. "It's a great way to help Capital Metro and I sure think the public wants some roads built around this town."

Council members, who were caught off guard by Watson's plans for another bond election, reacted to the proposal cautiously Sunday. The Austin American-Statesman reported yesterday that Watson would propose a $75 million transportation bond package to go along with the light rail proposal from Capital Metro.

All six members of the council said they had questions about the proposal, $65 million of which would be used to match money from the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), with the remainder to be used for sidewalks and bike lanes or similar improvements.

Council Member Beverly Griffith, who had not spoken to Watson as of Sunday night, said, "I'm feeling a little behind, but I'm catching up as fast as I can." Griffith said she learned that there was a possibility of a bond election from a Friday e-mail from Karin Ascot, conservation chair for the Sierra Club's Austin Regional Group, commenting on the proposal.

Ascot said she learned about the plan from a reporter who asked for her reaction. Ascot said the American-Statesman story was an inaccurate reflection of the Sierra Club's position. "Given Austin's growth," she said, "we acknowledge that we must spend some money on new motor vehicle infrastructure. But we oppose spending money on new, sprawl-inducing highways or freeways, or roads designated as collectors and arterials in the typical subdivision." Sierra Club is opposed to SH 130, she said. "I think it is absurd to support Smart Growth and then raise property taxes. You're automatically driving people from the center of town. If you build new highways, you're creating sprawl. You can't pretend you're doing Smart Growth and then put highways at the edge of town. We've been trying the highway solution for 50 years and it hasn't worked. So we just keep building more," she said. Austin's transportation problem, Ascot concluded, is "We just don't have an efficient alternative" to the single-occupant vehicle.

"If the roads we build are going to encourage people to leave the city," Ascot continued, "then it doesn't make any sense for the City of Austin to be funding those. Conversely, if this helps people to stay in the city and encourages Smart Growth and urban infill then we're headed in the right direction. The toll road is not going to be in Austin. I'm not in favor of using money from the bond package to be a match for SH 130. If the only money they offer (TxDOT) is to build a new highway, we don't need it," she said.

A city employee who wished to remain anonymous said neither City Manager Jesus Garza, Capital Metro Board Chairman Lee Walker, nor Capital Metro General Manager Karen Rae were informed of the plan for a bond election by the mayor. Mayor Watson did not return phone calls Sunday to comment on this story.

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman told In Fact Daily, "As I understand it, (the mayor) didn't really mean to surprise anyone. The genesis of it was a private conversation," with someone who told the reporter. Goodman said, "As a package, it's not nailed down, but as a concept and a premise, it's a comprehensive, holistic approach. As a concept, I think it's a good idea."

Council Member Gus Garcia said Watson told him about the proposal Saturday. Garcia, a Smart Growth supporter, said, "I told the mayor I'd look at it. I told him if the city puts money in city projects to match state allocations, it ought to benefit Austin, not other communities. Secondly, I think the other communities ought to do the same. Round Rock, Cedar Park, Georgetown–contribute significantly to the traffic problem. I would hope it would be a regional type of approach, but he did not know whether that was something that could be done.

"As I understand it, it's in a very preliminary stage. Also, I told the mayor I wasn't going to look at anything that didn't have an appropriate amount for bicycle lanes and sidewalks. We need to have a comprehensive approach. He said this sort of thing would help light rail. I have no idea (if it will). I know whatever it is we do, we have to look at transportation comprehensively." Garcia said the redevelopment of Mueller airport could provide "a great housing resource. If they put the light rail through there, you could get to downtown in 10 minutes. My wife is already talking about us moving there. I would like for us to look at all those issues and see how we can address the situation comprehensively." The draft master plan for redevelopment of Mueller shows a light rail route through the property (In Fact Daily Jan. 20).

Council Member Willie Lewis said any bond proposals would "need some stipulations on what its going to be used for. I don't think the people would even approve it if it weren't for something specific." Lewis, who emphasized the need for new sidewalks when he announced for reelection last week, said, "You don't have to wait until you redo a roadway to build sidewalks. But that's basically what Austin's been doing in the past. My contention is there's just been a lack of interest on the part of people making decisions on sidewalks," as opposed to a lack of funds.

Council Member Bill Spelman said, "From a political point of view, it's probably good politics. It's a way of saying, 'Your City Council is not just behind transit. It is also behind roads. We know you're not going to get out of your cars tomorrow and start to ride trains. We're realists. We're also being reasonable in the way the mayor's framed it. There's about 15 percent for sidewalks and bike paths." Spelman said he was concerned about how the money would be spent. Essentially, Spelman said, the money would be a "slush fund," and he didn't have an idea of what roads would be built. "It's kind of a pig in a poke," he said. "We're not sure what developers or TxDOT are going to dream up. CAMPO ( Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization) is up to 2004 with its current funding." Any matching funds the city provided "would not get onto the TxDOT schedule until 2005 at the earliest." So, he said, "Those roads would not actually be on the ground until 2007. So, this is a long ways off. To the extent that we want to get action fast, we're not really going to do it through a bond issue." Spelman said a lot of people would be happy about improvements to intersections, but new roads like SH 45 would face a lot of political opposition.

Council Member Daryl Slusher said Watson told him about the bond proposal Thursday. "I think we need both roads and rail." However, he said he did not know any details and would have to study the proposal.

Mary Arnold, environmentalist and member of the citizen's advisory board that recommended projects for the November 1998 bond package, said, "We were told there wouldn't be another big bond election for five years. We didn't recommend as much for transportation as got approved." Arnold said, "I don't like undesignated slush funds," but "if the $75 million were tied into money for light rail, that would make sense."

Dave Sullivan, a member of the city's Bond Oversight Committee, which advises the city on the order of projects to be funded from the November 1998 bond election, said his group only advises the council on that specific election's bond funds. However, Sullivan said, "The city has a policy of setting a limit for bond sales in a given year. We do get ahead of ourselves by authorizing a reimbursement resolution. We promise to reimburse ourselves next year through bond sales for the cash we spent this year." This process, Sullivan said, limits the city's discretion for the following year because the city tries to limit sales to $56 million per year. Sullivan said the city could either put the road bonds at the end of the current five to six year line or delay other projects. Otherwise, he said, the city would exceed its own self-imposed limit on sales.

Austin voters approved $210 million in bonds in May 1998 and okayed another $712.3 million in November 1998, for a total of $922.3 million. The proposed $75 million bond election would bring the total to within an eyelash of $1 billion–$997.3 million.

Light rail election date posted for discussion but no decision

Capital Metro, city officials heading to Washington for insights on funding

Even though today's agenda for the board of directors of Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority includes "discussion of setting an election date for a referendum on a fixed rail transit system," General Manager Karen Rae says the board will not be making any decisions this week. Rae said she and others, including Mayor Kirk Watson, must meet with federal transportation officials before they can make a decision on a May or November election. Rae said she would put the item on each board agenda until a decision is made in case board members want to address the issue.

Council Member Daryl Slusher, who sits on the Capital Metro board, said he will be going to Washington with Rae, Watson and Lee Walker, board chairman. Slusher said, "We want to find what (federal funds) will be available in May and what will be left in November." Board members are worried that if they wait until November they may lose money that will be available earlier. "Congress is likely to earmark all the funds in a national election year before the election," he said. "But it's more complicated than just appropriations," he added. Slusher explained that the Federal Transportation Authority would release ratings on the rail plan Capital Metro has submitted for the agency's review. He said Cap Metro could get ready for a May election, although he would rather have more time. But waiting for the later date may mean "we risk blowing the chance to get several hundred million dollars" from the federal pie, he said.

Cheap inspiration…Representatives of local social and environmental justice groups will be waiting tables tonight at Pato's Good Tacos, 1400 E. 38-1/2 St. as Austinites get a chance to see some reportedly talented folks, who offer a range of musical styles and a commitment to justice and the earth. The headliner is Massachusetts singer-songwriter David Rovics, a rare artist who tells the stories of victims of greed, from exploited workers to the exploited earth. He offers both original music and the classics of protest music. Also on the bill is Austin's own classic, Bill Oliver, whose theme songs include Barton Springs Eternal, plus Kale Kalloch, Danny Dolinger, Kevin Gant and Courtney and Altercation. The music starts at 7 p.m. and there's a $4 cover charge… Surprise, surprise… Municipal Court Presiding Judge Evelyn McKee surprised the court's new Acting Clerk Richard Harris Friday. McKee told Harris, who is taking over with the departure of Paul Martin, to come to her office for his swearing-in. When he got there, however, Harris was ushered into a courtroom, where his colleagues waited to watch the ceremony. After taking the oath, Harris told the happy group he would not be initiating any changes. He told his colleagues they're already on the right track. Harris has worked at the court for more than 30 years… Calling all Democrats…A host of political clubs will conduct an endorsement meeting tomorrow night for the Democratic Primary races. The meeting runs from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Gardner Betts Juvenile Court, 2515 S. Congress Ave. Sponsoring Democrat clubs include Asian-American, Austin Tejanos, Black Austin, Capital Area Progressive, Central Austin, Mexican-American, South Austin, South Austin Tejanos, University and West Austin. For more information, call Cecilia Crossley at 444-0956 or Rene Lara at 292-6447… New council meeting location…Don't forget the City Council meeting location has changed. This Thursday, Jan. 27, the council will meet at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, 2716 Spirit of Texas Drive. The meeting starts at 9 a.m. to consider Items 1-61 and resumes at 1:30 p.m. to consider items 62-77.

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