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Capital Metro Board to vote on

Monday, December 11, 2000 by

Quarter-cent tax use today

Environmental, engineering study to continue

Capital Metro Board Member John Trevino Jr. said Friday he wants the board to maintain strict control of tax revenues collected for Austin’s proposed light rail system until voters “see the light” and eventually approve a rail project. Light rail was defeated by a razor-thin .08 percent margin last month,

According to state law, however, funds slated for light rail cannot be spent towards that end until approved by voters. The issue to resolve is what to do with $140 million in reserves and nearly $70 million in anticipated revenues through 2003—all earmarked for rail. Capital Metro will address this topic today.

Another question the board will consider is whether to continue a $3.7-million engineering/environmental study on light rail. The answer to this is clear. Not finishing the study would require Capital Metro to reimburse the federal government about $2.2 million in grant funding, whereas completing the study would only cost $460,000, according to Capital Metro General Manager Karen Rae.

Board Member David Harper said State Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Williamson County, told him it was important to continue the study. Krusee said it “makes good, common sense” to complete it because it would cost five times as much to get out of the contracts if the study were to be aborted. He noted that Krusee also said the primary reason the proposal failed before voters was because the plan was incomplete. Finishing the study would give voters a more complete understanding of exactly what a light rail system would include.

The study is currently about one-third of the way through an 18-month process. Rae said 80 percent of the cost of the study is funded by a Federal Transit Administration grant.

Board Chair Lee Walker said almost all the input he’s received says to move forward with the study. Not only that, he added, light rail is an integral part of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) 25-year plan.

The study will continue, but the revenues from a quarter of Capital Metro’s penny sales tax must be reallocated elsewhere. “Voters said no and that decision is something we have to respect,” Walker said. He mentioned a letter he received from Mayor Kirk Watson in which the mayor stated that the funding slated for light rail “cannot and should not be used for the building of a rail system. However, I believe the agency should refrain from taking any action that precludes the future possibility of alternative transportation, including any action that would jeopardize future federal funding for alternative transportation.”

Walker said the “Mayor’s letter begs for response,” so it’s important to begin the process and “provide a schedule.” Trevino read part of a letter from Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, CAMPO policy advisory chair, expressing similar sentiments. “I also encourage the Board of Directors to make every effort to maintain the availability of federal transit funds for light rail…We cannot afford to forgo any federal transportation funding,” the letter said. Barrientos also urged the board to “continue without delay” the light rail engineering/environmental study. “We must keep the option open for a future light rail system,” he wrote.

Board Member Fred Harless of Lago Vista said the voters had spoken, and thus “we should return the quarter-cent” sales tax revenue to the respective jurisdictions. He said that quarter cent could no longer be collected for light rail. “For us to do that after this vote would be absolutely incredulous.” Harless said he wants to have discussion on the matter and allow room for planning, but he wants to take action soon so the change will be reflected in fiscal year 2001. “I’m proposing that we do it through an interlocal agreement, and interlocal agreements are only good for a year,” he said. “I think we have to keep control of those funds…and use (them) any way we can to accelerate mobilization and transportation.”

Trevino disagreed. “I’m reluctant to automatically make a decision like that…it took a long time to get that quarter cent,” he said. If voters change their minds at some point in the future—as they did on other major issues, such as the airport and the Convention Center—and eventually approve light rail, he asked, “will we have access to those funds?”

New measures needed to

Reduce regional air pollution

City employee auto use drops 6 percent

Central Texas leaders will meet Monday to discuss new measures to keep the region in compliance with the federal Clean Air Act.

Just last week, the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission approved new guidelines to reduce ozone in the Houston area. Houston is considered one of the biggest ozone offenders and one of three non-attainment areas in the state.

Austan Librach, director of the city's Planning, Environmental and Conservation Services Department, last week presented to the Austin City Council an overview of steps the city has taken to meet clean air guidelines. Over the last year, new measures—such as an increased reliance on telecommuting and financial incentives to avoid parking downtown—have decreased city employee car use by 6 percent.

Librach said the city's long-term goal is to reduce employee trips by 15 percent over the next two years. He estimated that city employees travel more than 270,000 vehicle miles per day. But no one measure is going to cut significantly into Austin's ozone levels, Librach told the council.

"There is no silver bullet," Librach admitted. "We have a lot of emissions from a lot of different sources. It's hard to get a lot of reductions from any one single source."

Ozone action days are a tough problem for Austin, Librach told the Council. Since 1993, the number of ozone action days has steadily increased each year. This is caused by a combination of hot weather and pollution, leading to a smoggy ceiling over the city's skyline. The city experienced 20 ozone action days in 1999, when the weather effects of La Niña were exacerbated by extreme heat.

"We have come closer and closer to violating these (clean air) standards on a regular basis over the last 11 years," Librach said. "This last year we exceeded the standard and we can came close to being in non-attainment."

Librach said the city had until 2007 to come up with a regional plan to achieve significant attainment of clean air guidelines. If not, Austin could risk losing federal funding.

The city is already implementing a series of reduction strategies, such as a compressed workweek and telecommuting options for employees, which take people off the roads during the day, especially at peak traffic times. The city has also purchased more low emission vehicles, almost a third of which are powered by an alternative fuel.

The city is also using e-business options as a catalyst for trip reductions, Librach said. Each time a person can access a city form or get city approval on a project over the Internet, it saves a trip.

Austin Energy is also implementing parking cash-out programs. The utility pays $50 per month to employees who agree not to park in the garage. City Council Member Daryl Slusher pointed out that the city still saves money, since parking in the garage costs between $80 and $100 per month. A total of 94 employees are currently participating in the program, which was launched last summer.

The Clean Air Coalition has run more than 1,200 spots on four radio stations in recent months to raise awareness of ozone action days, Mayor Kirk Watson told the Council. The technical advisory committee of the Clean Air Coalition is comprised of the county judges of Williamson, Travis, Hays, Bastrop and Caldwell counties, as well as the mayors of the largest cities of Travis, Williamson and Hays counties.

R/UDAT Planners outline

Roadmap for city's future

Arts, technology go hand-in-hand

During a session at last week’s R/UDAT symposium, a dynamic discussion among city leaders—which included topics such as the arts, affordable housing, high-tech business, “cultural environmentalism” and “The Bohemian Index”—spawned a list of “next steps” along the city’s path into the future. The product of a spontaneous and informal brainstorming session, the list was not organized according to priorities.

• Old Seaholm Power Plant – possible use as children’s or technology museum, or perhaps an aquarium • New downtown library • Gateway to downtown from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport • Public art • Public open spaces – parks and downtown squares • Relocate/build new downtown fire station • Downtown infrastructure – planning and funding • Great Streets Master Plan • Move downtown post office

When archeologists examine clues to uncover the mysteries of a lost culture, the primary indicators of a sophisticated society are details about technology and arts, said Ben Bentzin, chair of ARTS Center Stage and a marketing director for Dell Computer Corp. The arts are important to maintain employment in a community, he said, citing this as a reason for traditionally strong business support of cultural arts. He referred to a study called “The Bohemian Index” which links growth of high-tech business to areas with a high “bohemian” quotient. The study showed that communities with the highest number of authors, painters, poets and musicians are the same communities with the most rapid growth in the high-tech industry. “It’s a good leading indicator of high-tech job growth,” he said. When asked about “cultural environmentalism,” Bentzin said it was a proper caution to make sure that the vibrant culture that helps spawn rapid growth in Austin doesn’t end up choking itself to death.

Former City Council Member Brigid Shea, now a consultant working to facilitate urban infill by having high-tech companies locate downtown instead of in the Barton Springs Recharge Zone, said Vignette Corp. intends to invest in the local music scene when it locates downtown. Why? She said their business thrives on culture. A Vignette principal told her if by moving downtown, Vignette drives out the funky, bohemian culture, they will have failed, she said. To punctuate that, she noted that three active bands among Vignette employees have expressed the desire to perform music in the work environment and how important it is to the company to allow such culture to thrive.

Bentzin, who has been working for three years on converting Palmer Auditorium into the new Long Center for Performing Arts, said there is potential for a real performing arts complex along Town Lake. He noted the flurry of new arts facilities in the area, including the Austin Lyric Opera on Barton Springs Road, the Mexican American Cultural Center (MACC) on Red River Street along Town Lake, scheduled to open in 2003, the nearby Austin Museum of Art, also scheduled open in 2003, and the possibility of Seaholm turning into a museum. In his view, a cultural challenge ahead is developing more nighttime activity in the area.

On the rapid pace of growth downtown, Larry Speck, dean of the UT School of Architecture, said, “one concern I have as an architect is, are we getting good buildings or bad buildings?” He said his review is mixed. In his view, future challenges for downtown are concerned with “filling in the gaps.” As long as the economy remains strong over the next five years, he said, this will happen automatically. He noted the robust market is filling new downtown office space and new projects are flourishing. “We’re probably not going to have see-through office buildings,” he said.

Speck stressed the need for a new library, one that would put Austin on par with other major cities around the country. “We need that kind of downtown library,” he said. While on the subject of community facilities in the center of town, he said the “downtown post office is depressing…it’s an eyesore, a very bad use of land…That post office needs to be moved.”

Shea said the city has “tremendous initiatives” with Waller Creek and Shoal Creek. Both creeks offer the beauty of nature in a downtown environment, so it’s important to bring that out and not cover it up. She noted that the Riverwalk in San Antonio is “wonderful in many ways, but it really is a concrete ditch.

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

Signs of the times . . . “Pregnant chads have a right to life”, read the sign held by longtime Democrat Anne McAfee. Beside her stood Electric Utility Commissioner Shudde Fath, whose sign read, “Trust the People, Count the Votes.” They stood across from the Governor’s Mansion yesterday afternoon, with about 25 other staunch Democrats. They chanted, “What’s Bush afraid of?” Former Council Member Margaret Hofmann and Paul Robbins of Democracy Now also held signs. A younger member of the group, Wilson Leary, held a sign that said, “Democracy is Dead.” A plastic skull with a red wig was attached to the top. On the Republican side of the street, a handful of Republicans held their own signs. Gail Byers of Cedar Park said, “They want to count the votes until the ballots fall apart.” She said, “If Gore wins, we’re going to take our Winnebagos to West Texas,” where they will register to vote. Their goal would be to defeat Democratic congressmen. From there, she said, the group would move to other states where Democrats are running, register to vote, and vote Republican.

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

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