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Manager, Board members say more public input needed

Thursday, May 30, 2002 by

The board of the Capital Metropolitan Transit Authority agreed Wednesday that Austin is not ready for another election on light rail. General Manager Fred Gilliam told the board, “I’m confident that Capital Metro heard the citizens when they said more information and public input is needed,” when voters narrowly defeated a rail plan on the November 2000 ballot.

Gilliam said the Preliminary Engineering/Environmental Impact Study has not been completed. He said the study is “the first step” in fulfilling the need expressed by the voters. “As we have gone into the community, we have found that the enthusiasm for a plan has led to people wanting more—not less—time to help shape this vital project.” In addition, Gilliam noted that federal officials would be looking for more than just an election before agreeing to help fund such a project. The Federal Transit Administration will be looking for “a plan that has received public approval . . . I believe it would be irresponsible to ask the federal government for money without a clear, sensible and publicly supported plan.” He said however, that he would bow to the board’s wishes if they chose to have another election this November.

Board member John Treviño, asked Gilliam how long it might take to finish the study, but the manager did not have a date. Treviño said, “The concern I have had . . . is not so much we would slip in schedule . . . if we finally come up with the perfect plan . . . what about the funding? That was my concern . . . no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”

Chair Lee Walker responded that he and Gilliam had participated in several conference calls with federal officials. He praised John Almond, who is in charge of the project team, noting that Almond’s work to get input from the University of Texas community has been particularly impressive. He said some UT stakeholders have gone from “seeing that rail was peripheral, to more and more thinking it is central to our future.”

Walker sees the project as “bringing benefit to this community 100 years from now.” So it makes sense to take the extra time to ensure that major players are comfortable with the alignment. Capital Metro heard that the public wanted details of the plan and the costs. “You can’t put a time limit on public process. It takes the time it takes.”

Walker has had numerous meetings with community leaders, asking them whether light rail should be back on the ballot this year. The response, he told In Fact Daily, has been about fifty-fity, about the same as it was when voters rejected the 2000 plan. Fewer than 2,000 votes separated the pros from the cons in that election, with more than 237,000 votes cast on a $1.9 billion 25-year proposition. (See In Fact Daily, Nov. 8, 2000, Nov. 14, 2000. )

The board chair also said he would not choose to move forward until the board and the public were united on the light rail issue. “This isn’t about winning. It’s about getting important policy matters right.” He said Dallas is a good example of a community that has done rail right. After the starter line was built, communities that chose not to participate suddenly learned that they had made an economic mistake. If the starter rail—which currently is planned to go from north of the city to downtown—is done right, he said, South Austin and other parts of town would want to join.

Council Member Daryl Slusher, who lives in South Austin, said the proposed rail route has yet to be determined. He is still interested in using using the Union Pacific right-of-way to take a rail line through South Austin, he said, adding that stations could be put at Oltorf, the South Austin Hospital, Crockett High School and the new Austin Community College campus across the street, and at William Cannon .

Almond said the most important thing about the engineering/environmental impact study is that it be thorough. Whatever the initial alignment, he said, it must fit well with the bus system plan. “We have to establish the route alignment before we can do that . . . The route alignment plan is taking a quite a long time and I’m glad we’re doing it. The UT and capitol area stakeholders are enthusiastic,” providing new information daily to Cap Metro’s team.

Commissioner Margaret Gomez said a majority of Mexican-American voters opposed the 2000 rail referendum. She said she would work hard to turn that around. It may take three or four conversations per person, but she is willing to invest that time, she concluded. There was no vote yesterday, but Walker said he had no doubt that the consensus of the board was to postpone the vote. Capital Metro is limited to having light rail elections during even-numbered years.

Before the discussion on light rail, Rep. Mike Krusee (R-Round Rock) addressed the board. He recalled that they agreed a year ago to work together to resolve the region’s transportation problems. “Never did I dream that it would work out as well as it has. Lately we’ve had some great victories,” he said, citing SH 130, SH 45 and the possibility of a Regional Mobility Authority. “None of that would be possible without Cap Metro as a partner. I wanted to express my gratitude for everything you have done during the past year. You are a true regional partner with everyone.

City provides many other health services

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman urged South Austinites yesterday to take a careful look at the hospital district issue if it makes it onto the county’s ballot this November.

Goodman was the keynote speaker at the South Austin Culture Club luncheon. After some good-natured humor about those who live in South Austin —herself included—Goodman spoke on the possibility that County Judge Guy Herman would address the county’s indigent health care issues by putting a county-backed hospital district on the ballot.

He only needs 100 verified signatures to do this. Herman is well meaning, Goodman said, but a county hospital district may not be the answer for Austin. As an aside, she said she and Beverly Griffith's campaign manager are ready to become consultants so they can load up the county ballot with referenda. She laughed when she said it, but when on to the serious mesage: The city already provides a vast array of vital services—inoculations, pre-natal care and dental clinics in Austin schools among them—that could disappear if a county hospital district were approved. Instead, Austinites need a health care district tailored to meet the needs of Austin, Goodman said.

“We just try to leverage public dollars in infinite ways,” said Goodman, ticking off a number of city-backed programs. “I don’t know if the county can be counted on to provide the same commitment. The city has been in the business for the last 126 years. If the county hasn’t shown up in 126 years, I don’t think that we should be in a rush to send it on over to them.”

Goodman spoke to a crowd that included South Austinites and a few of their northern neighbors, as well as State Rep. Elliott Naishtat (D-Austin), whose district now stretches deep into South Austin. During her remarks, Goodman said the city is facing a budget crisis. Not only is the city without money, but “there’s a hole where the money used to be,” she told the group. Even within a $71 million deficit though, people still approach her with questions like, “Will we be getting our branch library this year?”

Residents can expect short-term cuts in non-essential areas this year, Goodman said. Long-term, Austin is still positioned as an international trade and high-tech center. While Austin is in this temporary lull, city leaders need to take a deep breath and look at diversification. “We did put a lot of eggs in that high-tech basket,” Goodman told the luncheon audience.

Goodman pointed to film, music and the arts as industries with room for development in the city. South Austin is a place where those industries have flourished, Goodman said.

The mayor pro tem waxed poetic about the “good state of mind” that is South Austin, and also ribbed the locals once again. This is the place, Goodman said, that would hands down win the city award for turning the smallest, most unimportant issue into a huge fight. No other area of town could compete, said Goodman, drawing laughter from the audience.

Only one company sought change to enter Austin market

The Urban Transportation Commission recently decided not to review the city’s Ground Transportation Ordinance, which regulates vehicles for hire, including taxis, limousines and charter bus services. The ordinance was written to require that any company offering limousine service include at least one standard limo, or luxury sedan, in its fleet.

Domingo Pardo, owner of K and P Limousine, had asked the commission to recommend changes in that ordinance to remove that restriction. Pardo’s fleet consists of only one vehicle, a stretch SUV, and he is seeking to enter both the Austin and San Antonio markets. But San Antonio has similar rules for limo operators, and without a traditional luxury sedan he is prevented from operating in either city. “I did not own a Lincoln or a Cadillac before I bought my stretch Excursion,” Pardo said. “I would like to go where I can maximize my investment.”

Representatives of existing limo companies, including Echelon Limousine Service, Sedans Inc., and Carey Limousine told commissioners that their would-be competitor should abide by the same rules as the 39 companies already licensed to serve the Austin market. Changing the rules to benefit one company, they argued, would be unfair to the existing operators. “We’ve put up with a lot of stuff from the city over the years,” said Mark Sweetland of Carey Limousine. Other limo-company representatives said that the minimum requirements in the ordinance helped ensure the safety of passengers as well as the stability of the industry. Some told commissioners that they had been required to purchase additional vehicles when the ordinance took effect and suggested that Pardo should have studied the regulations before purchasing his vehicle.

Commission Chair Jay Wyatt, who had been involved in drafting the existing Ground Transportation Ordinance in the 1990’s, told fellow commissioners that it had taken several years and hundreds of hours of input to come up with the current regulations. He urged them to refrain from tampering with the rules to benefit one company. While there was some desire among commissioners to find a way to allow K and P Limousine to operate here, the majority decided instead to leave the ordinance untouched. “Given the amount of work that went into the ordinance, I feel totally unqualified to just jump in here,” said Commissioner Patrick Goetz.

Monday ,,

Friday.

Wynn’s new aide . . . Council Member Will Wynn has found a new executive assistant. Josh Allen, a senior editor at the Department of Protective & Regulatory Services and a graduate of the LBJ School of Public Affairs, will join Wynn’s staff on June 17. Mark Nathan, bitten by the political bug, is leaving City Hall to be field director for the Tony Sanchez campaign. . . . Meanwhile in the Attorney General's race . . . The campaigns of Republican Greg Abbott and Democrat Kirk Watson are trading barbs over each candidate's record and tactics as they seek the post of Texas Attorney General. The Houston Chronicle cites an appearance by Abbott last week in which his campaign presented information claiming that Watson had violated the state's open meetings law when he was Mayor of Austin. But the Chronicle goes on to point out that the meeting in question occurred in May of 1997, one month before Watson took office. Now, Margaret Justus with the Watson campaign is circulating an email to the state’s media outlets telling them to “triple-check your facts!” She writes, “Whether it is intentional or not, the Abbott campaign has shown a willingness to issue statewide press releases that contain errors, distortions and half truths about Kirk Watson’s record.” Officials with the Abbott campaign told the Chronicle that they had acknowledged the error in the information they provided last week . . . Salamander hearing today . . . . . . Salamander hearing today . . . Federal Judge Sam Sparks will hear arguments this morning from lawyers for the SOS Alliance and the two federal agencies involved in endangered species protection. SOSA charges that the recent opinion by the Fish & Wildlife Service that there is no risk to the salamander as a result of the Construction General Permit was politically motivated. The draft opinion said continued use of the permit would put the salamander in jeopardy of extinction. The final opinion said the opposite. Judge Sparks could declare the new opinion to be perfectly fine, or he could say it is illegal and order the agencies to stop allowing use of the permit. He could also order the agencies to confer once again to come up with a new opinion.

© 2002 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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