Wednesday, November 8, 2000 by

Voters reject Light Rail plan,

Approve bonds for roads, open space

Plan to lease parkland for golf course defeated

Voters defeated Capital Metro’s light rail proposal by a narrow margin Tuesday sending city officials back to the drawing board in search of solutions to Austin’s ever-increasing traffic problems.

Early voting had rail opponents winning by nearly 4,800 votes when the first numbers came in. But around 10:30 p.m., with 42 percent of the vote counted, the numbers favored light rail by about 700 votes, prompting supporters at Palmer Auditorium to cheer. Their glee was short-lived, however. Minutes later the tide turned again and votes against light rail began to mount steadily. With 87 percent of the vote counted, there were 117,575 for the rail proposal and 119,467 against it—a difference of 1,892 votes.

“This is a very strong message, a mandate to the leaders of Austin that says this community is very serious about transportation and its number one problem—congestion and mobility,” said Jim Skaggs, chairman of ROAD. “They’ve (the voters) spoken, and light rail isn’t the answer. I hope what it leads to is an urgency in our city leaders to address the problem with a real set of solutions. We can’t solve this problem without catching up on 15 or 20 years of neglect of the infrastructure.”

“I’m really disappointed,” said Council Member Daryl Slusher. “It hurts to lose elections, especially so closely like this. But we’ve just got to get the board together and get the staff together and talk about what the next move is. Obviously we’re going to have to rely on buses but Austin really needs a mass transit element for it’s transportation approach,” he said.

“I think people just weren’t ready for the change. Change is really difficult and it’s a hard sell and we didn’t quite get it over the hump,” he said. Slusher also serves on the Capital Metro board.

When asked about the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s (CAMPO) strategy for Austin’s transportation future, Slusher said, “CAMPO is going to have to revamp because CAMPO was relying on the rail system.”

Council Member Will Wynn agreed. “It means we have to go back to the proverbial drawing board and the drawing board is going to be constrained,” he said. “The 25-year CAMPO plan was predicated on light rail being an integral part of it. If the election holds, and light rail is turned down, then we’ve just taken one part of our plan off the drawing board, so I think we have to start over again. But decisions now will be very, very difficult,” he said.

ROAD board member Gerald Daugherty said this is a clear message. “It says this community is not willing to sign off on Capital Metro spending billions of dollars on something that people just aren’t sure would do any good for traffic. We never said that people wouldn’t ride it…we’re just saying, what’s the bang for the buck here? I’m very willing to sit down with people that are legitimately interested in doing something with mobility. I’m not leaving town,” he said.

Chuck McDonald, a communications consultant hired to run the media campaign to get light rail approved, said, “I don’t think it’s good for Austin. We’ve got clear congestion problems and we only had one solution on the ballot . . . We just chose not to adopt a solution.”

Mayor Kirk Watson said, “We always thought it would be close. Four years ago when I was running, we said we should let the voters decide the issue. I think it’s been healthy for the community to have this discussion and it will be important for us to continue to discuss how to address the needs of the community. We always need to make sure that there’s local control over the use of these resources.”

The proposal called for a 52-mile system to be completed in 25 years at a cost of $1.9 billion. The trains would have run from Leander to South Austin, with spurs to East Austin and Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Funding for the project would have come from a combination of Capital Metro funds and future tax revenues, bonds and matching federal transportation dollars. The light rail proposal asked for no additional money from voters.

City bond propositions

The city asked Austin voters to approve bonds for roads, open space acquisition and permission to lease city parkland at Lake Walter E. Long for a golf course and hotel. Voters enthusiastically endorsed Proposition 1, $150 million in transportation bonds, with more than 78 percent of the vote. More than 65 percent of those voting agreed to spend $13.4 million for green space acquisition. However, Proposition 3, leasing unused parkland at Lake Walter Long in East Austin, was defeated. Here’s how the votes stacked up early this morning:

Prop. 1 For 153,784 (78.51%) Against 42,086 (21.49%) Prop.2 For 125,697 (65.27%) Against 66,886 (34.73%) Prop. 3 94,833 (49.43%) Against 97,029 (50.57%)

Developers Larry Beard, Mark Levy and Gagne Development Co., Inc. of New York wanted to build a 250-room hotel, conference center, swimming pool, tennis courts, and a 36-hole golf course at the unutilized park on FM 973. The issue got little publicity during the campaign, with most local attention focusing on the light rail proposal.

Howard Falkenberg, a spokesman for the developers, said he believes the group did not explain all the possible benefits the proposal would have brought to East Austin. “It’s our fault. We didn’t get started early enough,” he said. Last summer, when the city decided to put the question on the ballot, developers projected payments to the city of $92 million during the first 20 years of the lease of the Prairie Grass Golf Club and Resort.

Mayor Kirk Watson, who supported the measure, said, “That’s another situation for the voters to decide. I’m not sure there’s a wrong answer on that.”

Falkenberg said he hopes that the city can find another opportunity to stimulate economic development and Smart Growth in East Austin.

Proposed change to Airport

Advisory Board shocks members

At least one sponsor having second thoughts

Mayor Kirk Watson and City Council Members Daryl Slusher and Beverly Griffith are sponsoring a plan to replace the current Airport Advisory Board with a new one chosen from specific segments of the community. The three have placed an item on this Thursday’s agenda which ends the terms of current board members on January 15. In Fact Daily talked to two members of the current advisory panel who said they were not notified or consulted about the change.

The current ordinance gives the nine-member board the duty to review and make recommendations to the City Council on capital improvements projects, development of a new airport, use of aviation grants and trust funds, leases and relationships with commercial air carriers. Duties outlined in the proposed ordinance are very similar to those in the current law, minus references to building a new airport and closing the old one.

The ordinance now on the books calls for appointment of nine citizens, without specific reference to their education or professions. The proposal dictates qualifications for seven of the nine commission members, including: a pilot; a resident of the Austin-Bergstrom Airport area; a civil engineer or architect; an attorney; a real estate appraiser; a business person; and a person “from the banking or financial community.”

Board members Hannah Riddering and Diana Castenada, who have been outspoken advocates for various changes in airport management, said the board was not given any notice that the ordinance had been written or that it was coming before the City Council.

Castenada said, “I’m appalled that (Slusher and Griffith) would just sponsor this. If they set these standards for this committee, they’ll do it for all other commissions. This is terrible in terms of removing government from the average citizen.”

Riddering, a taxi driver and a leader in the National Organization for Women, said the move to change the board “is a tremendous slap at the Airport Advisory Board and other advisory boards in the city.” Riddering has been an advocate for airport taxi drivers and for efficiency in airport operations. (See In Fact Daily, Sept. 20, 1999)

Both Riddering and Castenada have locked horns with Aviation Director Chuck Griffith in the past. The two said he was the author of the new ordinance. However, Griffith told In Fact Daily he was not. Riddering said Griffith had shown Airport Advisory Board Chair Bill Martin a copy of the list of professions that now appears in the proposed ordinance.

Slusher said, “Basically we need a new structure because the other was more aimed for building the airport. It makes more sense.” Slusher said the aviation director “suggested the composition.” However, Slusher said the change in composition is not a preliminary step to an airport authority as Riddering believes.

Linda Dailey, executive assistant to Council Member Danny Thomas, said her boss would pull the item for discussion at Thursday’s meeting. Daily said Thomas is not happy about the fact that the new ordinance has been set for City Council consideration without input from the Airport Advisory Board. In addition, Daily said it appears that the city’s sunset process has been circumvented.

Castaneda said she has served on sunset commissions in the past. “Normally, you have a sunset commission draw up the new ordinance and send it to the committee they’re reviewing. Then they come up with recommendations, and then it goes to the City Council.”

Both said the current airport board had tried to come up with a new ordinance, but the person given the job of chairing the subcommittee never called a meeting.

Council Member Griffith said late Tuesday that the City Council did not yet have enough information to act on the new ordinance. “We’ve had input from the staff, but not from the advisory board,” she said. She also pointed out that the Council has not held a public hearing on the question and one has not been scheduled. It seems unlikely that the ordinance will be approved this week.

©2000 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Ecology Action celebrates . . . This weekend Ecology Action will celebrate 30 years of providing recycling opportunities and education to the citizens of Central Texas. To mark the occasion and help meet its goal of recycling 3,000 tons of materials in 2000, the organization is holding a recycling drive at the St. John's Home Depot, 7211 N. I-35 Service Road from 9 a.m to 5 p.m. Sat. and Sun. Home Depot says it new store, under construction at Woodward and I-35, will be among the first retail establishments in Austin to have a built-in rainwater collection system . . . Our new President? . . . At 3 a.m., Tom Brokaw is having second thoughts about whether Gov. George W. Bush really is the President-elect. It’s been a long, strange night, and it’s not over. Stay tuned . . .

© 2000 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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