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Travis County approves

Wednesday, October 9, 2002 by

Commuter rail district

Only Commissioner Davis opposes plan

The concept of a regional commuter rail district won the support of all the members of Travis County Commissioners Court yesterday except Commissioner Ron Davis, who feared the rail district would bring hazardous freight too close to the neighborhoods in Precinct 1.

State lawmakers approved the concept of a 110-mile commuter rail line between Georgetown and San Antonio in 1997. But as time passed, only the City of Austin signaled support. Now that the Texas Department of Transportation has begun planning State Highway 130, however, the time might finally be ripe for a feasibility study. The current option would be to move freight rail off the Union Pacific line through Central Austin and onto a rail corridor in the right-of-way on State Highway 130, Commissioner Karen Sonleitner said during a presentation on the corridor by fellow Commissioner Margaret Moore.

Moore called the commuter rail line, “the next tool to put in our kit.” Moore, who serves as Travis County’s representative on a corridor study committee, told commissioners it was time to take advantage of the $5.6 million US Rep. Lamar Smith (R-San Antonio) had set aside for such a feasibility study. And Union Pacific will not be ready to negotiate in earnest until a commuter rail district begins talking seriously about purchasing or leasing the line, she said.

Commissioner Margaret Gomez told her colleagues that despite her support for the general concept of a rail district—especially to move 18-wheelers off Interstate 35—she did not want the district to divert attention from local traffic issues. And Gomez, who also serves on the Capital Metro board, raised questions about just how much Capital Metro would have to pony up for the commuter rail project. Moore said that had yet to be determined.

“I do not want to be distracted from attending to traffic congestion problems locally and the quality of the air,” said Gomez, adding that there should be no question where her allegiance lies. “I was elected from this county and I’m responsible to the people in this county.”

Moore said Gomez’s concern was entirely appropriate. Commuter rail is only one piece of an overall solution and is consistent with Capital Metro’s mission for regional mobility, Moore said. She added that the commuter rail line, when and if it is approved, would be phased in where the need was most pressing, with the first sections likely from Williamson County to Travis County and then from Travis County to Hays County.

Capital Metro General Manager Fred Gilliam was in attendance at the meeting; and afterward spokesman Sam Archer said the agency certainly supported the concept of commuter rail, having been the underwriter of the commuter rail feasibility study back in 1997. That study, conditioned on the completion of light rail and a proper feeder bus system to support the line, projected only 8,000 passengers a day. Stops in Austin were planned at McNeil Boulevard and downtown.

But it was Davis who was the most critical, brushing off assurances that the creation of the rail district would simply trigger a feasibility study and not the actual creation of the rail line. It would be one thing if the court was simply talking about a commuter rail line, he said, but the implications of that line would mean the possible redirection of freight along the State Highway 130 corridor. The communities of Precinct 1 have already fought a hard battle on the alignment of the highway corridor away from their neighborhoods.

“I can support commuter rail in itself, but now we’re talking about something that’s already going to be an impact on the community in Precinct 1 that is already overwhelmed with a lot of hardship, even on the eastern alignment of 130,” Davis said.

Sonleitner stressed the urgency of the project because State Highway 130 was in its final engineering and design phase. Design on the corridor could be locked down in the next six months. By adding a rail corridor to the design, the state could offer “terrific economies of scale” on the simultaneous construction of rail and road.

Joe Gieselman, executive director of Transportation and Natural Resources, said rail was analyzed as part of the draft environmental impact statement. However, Gieselman said, it might be difficult to integrate rail into the plan with so much of the design and engineering completed on the road.

County Judge Sam Biscoe stressed that creation of the commuter rail district did not mean the county was committing itself to funding the rail project. Many of the questions on feasibility and alignment and financing, Biscoe said, will not be answered until an initial study of the district is completed.

Commissioners held off on appointing a county representative to the board, a position Moore volunteered to take. The rural areas of the county must also appoint a representative. The board appointment will be back on the county agenda next week.

Austin, SOS Alliance still seeking safeguards

Some of the same parties who supported last year’s Travis County road bond issue (see In Fact Daily, Oct 18, 2001 ) lined up Tuesday night to support the proposed Regional Mobility Authority, with the SOS Alliance and City of Austin calling for strict conditions on any new transportation group. About 50 people attended a public meeting on the RMA at the Texas Department of Transportation’s offices, with fewer than a dozen signing up to speak.

Representatives of the Real Estate Council of Austin, Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and the Capital Area Transportation Coalition all said the RMA would be essential in solving the region’s traffic problems. “Our local jurisdictions have stepped forward to provide right-of-way funding and money for construction of key projects in our region,” said Chamber of Commerce Board Member Cliff Davis. “Given that, our jurisdictions are not in a position to continue to shoulder costs with tax money for building US 183A, SH 45 and other important projects. However, with an RMA, the Central Texas community would be able to build not only these roads but perhaps finish other important projects such as US 290 West.”

But it was the specter of other projects, possibly over the Barton Springs Recharge Zone in southern Travis County, that prompted opposition from the Save Our Springs Alliance. “We are concerned that the RMA would be used to extend SH-45 South from FM 1626 to I-35, thereby directly connecting south MoPac to I-35,” said SOS staff member Melanie Oberlin. “Such an extension would drastically increase vehicle trips per day over the Barton Springs Recharge Zone. SOS is opposed to this potential project and requests that TxDOT and any Central Texas RMA state the RMA will not connect south MoPac to I-35 via SH-45 South.” Austan Librach, director of the City of Austin’s Transportation, Planning and Sustainability Department, also conveyed a memo to TxDOT regarding the resolution adopted by the City Council last week. (See In Fact Daily, Oct. 4, 2002 .) That resolution outlines the conditions under which the city would endorse an RMA.

While the SOS Alliance opposition was based on the possible impact the additional traffic would have on water quality, citizen activist Scott Johnson pointed to the possible impact that the construction of new roads would have on air quality. “Air quality is a regional challenge and one that we’ve not addressed well,” Johnson said. “The main driver for air pollution in our region is vehicle miles traveled.” Johnson said the proposed list of projects for the RMA focused too heavily on roads while other means of transportation were given short shrift. “With rail not being a significant component, I have my doubts as to whether this will be an air-quality strategy,” he said.

But supporters of the RMA said their primary concern was the need to build more roads to alleviate traffic congestion. “Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death in the U.S. for people ages 6 to 33,” said Richard Ridings, who identified himself as a resident of Travis County. “The economic cost of those traffic accidents is estimated (at) $231 billion dollars. We must find ways to expand our transportation systems in this country, and I strongly support the Regional Mobility Authority to find a way to increase the amount of transportation provided and reduce the deaths and accidents that we have in this country.” Ridings is a Vice President of HNTB, an architecture and design firm known for its work in the areas of transportation, bridges and aviation. The firm also has experience in building toll roads.

TxDOT is holding another public meeting to discuss the RMA tonight in Cedar Park. Citizens can also submit written comments through October 19th.

On Monday night, KEYE-News compared the salaries of Austin City Council members with their counterparts in Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio. Reporter Nanci Wilson came up with the apparently shocking news that Austin Council members are paid better than those in the larger cities, which she claimed “operate just like ours.”

Fort Worth has a mayor and nine council members elected from districts. San Antonio has ten district council members plus a mayor. The City of Dallas has 15 elected officials, with 14 of them being elected from districts. KEYE reported that the Dallas council members are each paid $37,000 per year, compared to Austin City Council Members’ salaries of $45,000 per year plus a car allowance. Actually, the Dallas Council Members receive $37,500 per year. The station did not report the total for those 14 district representatives, which would be $525,000, as compared to the six at-large Austin representatives, totaling $270,000. Austin’s Mayor receives $53,000 and the Dallas Mayor is paid $60,000. Council members in Fort Worth and San Antonio are only paid token amounts.

In Fact Daily asked Council Member Betty Dunkerley for her reaction. “Looking at what the Council’s role is, we have I think a responsibility to constituent services, to citizens when they email in or call in and that takes a certain amount of time. I do virtually all my emails as well as phone messages. And that takes a lot of time. My day starts here at the office at 7 or 7:30 in the morning . . . and goes until 9 or 10 o’clock at night, Monday through Thursday.” In addition to that, Dunkerley said she attends meetings outside the office Friday through Sunday.

A former Assistant City Manager for Austin, Dunkerley also worked in Dallas as chief financial auditor. She said the budgets of Austin and Dallas are comparable. Because Austin owns its convention center, electric utility and hospital, Austin Council members deal with very complex agendas. “Those require a lot of study on the issues that are coming before us. So, granted we may make more money than other people, but I think we probably put in more time and certainly have a more complex organization.”

Friday.

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

Today at the work session . . . The Austin City Council will be briefed on activities and goals of the Resource Management Commission and hear proposals for more money for Art in Public Places as well as something called a “sobering up station” . . . Zoning cases on City Council agenda . . . On Thursday, the Council will be asked to clarify a previous zoning vote on the Villas on Guadalupe . That may bring the neighborhood back to the Council to ask once more that they not allow the number of units the developer was granted last spring. Members of the Southeast Corner Alliance of Neighborhoods will also be asking for additional environmental protection for watersheds within their Neighborhood Plan . . . SBCA opposes lignite mine . . . The Save Barton Creek Association (SBCA) has voted to oppose Alcoa’ s lignite mine in Bastrop and Lee Counties, saying they believe Alcoa’s plan would cause dewatering of the Carrizo Wilcox Aquifer. “Our concern is the effect on the Colorado River from a decline in the ground water from the Carrizo Wilcox.” If the withdrawal exceeds the aquifer’s recharge, the result could be highly mineralized water seeping into surrounding wells, according to the resolution. “We believe it will not be possible to mitigate the negative effects. The Barton Springs Zone of the Edwards Aquifer faces similar issues, and we do not want the Corps of Engineers to set a precedent of ignoring the rights of existing residents”. . . Unusual request . . . Chris Kramer, father of a Southeast Travis County firefighter, approached Travis County Commissioners yesterday to ask them to replace the five-member board of Emergency Service District #11 . ESD #11, Kramer said, has failed to file annual audits with the court and failed to submit the proper paperwork on board members to the state. Kramer argued that county commissioners had the right to replace the fire commissioners because they had failed to follow state law and continue to set the district on the wrong course . . . Another debate . . . While Tony Sanchez and Governor Rick Perry prepare to debate each other tonight, Libertarian and Green Party candidates have decided they will debate each other also. The conversation between Jeff Daiell, Libertarian, and Rahul Mahajan, the Green Party candidate, will be at 7pm Friday in Room 2.246 of the Welch Building on the University of Texas campus. Perry and Sanchez have been invited to participate, but the press release from Daiell says, “Other candidates besides Daiell and Mahajan have not yet indicated whether or not they intend to participate in this open debate.” The minor party candidates are planning on going to Houston, despite not having been invited to that debate . . . Fundraising report . . . Senator Gonzalo Barrientos yesterday reported raising $429,055 during the reporting period ending September 26, for a total of $634,655 in 1,212 individual contributions since January 1. According to the incumbent's campaign manager, Barrientos has outraised opponent Ben Bentzin four to one during the most recent reporting period.

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

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