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CAMPO board approves toll road plan

Tuesday, July 13, 2004 by

After adding complex amendments, panel votes 16-7

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority won approval for its toll road plan at last night's CAMPO board meeting, but it must decide how to deal with some complex amendments as well as bitter feelings that are likely to linger.

The final vote on the plan was 16 to 7, with some surprise votes against the plan. Council Member Daryl Slusher and Austin Democratic State Representatives Elliott Naishtat and Eddie Rodriguez voted no along with Republican Representatives Terry Keel, Jack Stick and Todd Baxter and Commissioner Gerald Daugherty.

Even the group’s chair, Senator Gonzalo Barrientos told the crowd and fellow board members, "I don't much like this plan. I wish we didn't have to vote on it.” He went on to add, “But we do. Delay is not an option. I think that has been made clear. The gas tax is not going to be raised. Other jurisdictions around the state will gladly accept our share of the Mobility Fund money if we don't act. People are not going to stop moving to our sweet city. We have built 144 lane miles in the last 14 years. This proposal will build 260 lane miles in five, six, maybe seven years, with unprecedented local input and control."

Slusher, Rodriguez and Naishtat all emphasized they were open to toll roads but felt rushed by the timing of the vote. Although he indicated that future Texas road building will require some significant tolls, Slusher said, “I cannot support this tonight for a number of reasons. One of them is, this is too massive a change to take place in just three months of consideration. It will affect everyone in this community and everyone who visits here, so I just think we need to take more time. We're talking about $2.2 billion dollars, and I don't feel we've seen adequate safeguards put into place on that amount of funds. Frankly, I think with $2.2 billion dollars being generated, it has massive boondoggle potential.”

He said he was also concerned about the additional roadway miles being put over the Barton Springs zone of the Edwards Aquifer, a theme echoed by members of the SOS Alliance, among others

Naishtat, like Slusher, was bothered by the tremendous size of the toll road program. And Rodriguez said the amendments approved by the Transportation Policy Board improved the overall project but did not provide enough of a cohesive plan. For him, the failure to limit the size of State Highway 45 Southwest finally tipped his vote.

Keel, who has said for some time that he could not vote for the plan, said, "I know for a fact that El Paso has trouble with this and they're not going to take it. I have constituents that will be paying 80 dollars a month just to commute to their job. I don't buy it. I hope the rest of you don't buy it, either. We've been sold a bill of goods here."

After the meeting, McCracken released a statement that read, in part, “Due to declining gas tax revenues, every state and every metropolitan area will soon face the reality that we in Austin had to confront this evening: without toll roads, there is not enough money to fund road maintenance and construction of new capacity. Our choice this evening was not whether to implement tolls—this is an inevitability. Rather, our choice was whether toimplement a toll program now, when there is $161 million in seed money from

the state to offset the construction costs, or wait and have to pay theentire cost of the system locally.”

The meeting at the Joe C Thompson Conference Center was packed with toll road opponents who frequently booed and hissed speeches they did not like. Both sides waved signs throughout the evening, urging pro or con votes. After the vote, Central Texas RMA Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein acknowledged the transit authority had plenty of work to do to rebuild trust with the community but that he was committed to making frequent appearances before CAMPO to provide updates on the toll road progress.

Jim Skaggs, who has led the anti-rail Reclaim Our Allocated Dollars group with Daugherty, said after the vote that he was frustrated by the fact the timeline was so rushed that many options were not considered to reduce congestion, such as carpools and expanded rapid bus service. Skaggs added that he still supported carving some of the tax dollars out of Capital Metro's budget for construction of some of the smaller toll projects in the plan. Heiligenstein said such a proposal would still be an option but it would be a choice for CAMPO and others and not the Central Texas RMA.

"We're not in the business of carving up other transit agencies," Heiligenstein said.

CAMPO, for the most part, approved eight proposed amendments as written. Substitute amendments to pull Loop 360, Loop 1 and State Highway 45 Southwest failed. Key players behind most of the amendments were Mayor Will Wynn, County Judge Sam Biscoe, Rep. Dawnna Dukes and Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos.

Significant amendments to the plan, which Baxter pointed out were not binding on the Central Texas RMA, included a guarantee of non-tolled alternatives on toll projects as well as a no-pay no-play provision that put toll revenues in the areas where tolls are collected. Council Member Brewster McCracken authored a successful amendment for context-sensitive design that parallels the design guidelines he is developing for city development. Dukes made sure that minority participation was encouraged on the various toll programs.

Loop 360 remains in the toll road plan but the Central Texas RMA will have to hold hearings on the design of the road. They may find it difficult to adequately address environmental and aesthetic concerns, especially the preservation of the Pennybacker Bridge. Rep. Todd Baxter's motion to pull the road from any toll road consideration failed, most likely because of efforts by McCracken to help District Engineer Bob Daigh point out the region would see little funding to provide significant relief to an arterial that is facing serious congestion.

Wynn provided a complicated amendment to devote fees off of Loop 1 to underwrite efforts to relocate the Union Pacific Railroad, construct sound walls along MoPac for single-family homes, provide commuter rail improvements and retrofit the road with water quality controls when MoPac was reconstructed for other improvements such as toll express lanes. Those improvements could include express lanes from Circle C to downtown.

This time, Commissioner Gerald Daugherty offered the substitute motion to remove Loop 1 from the toll road plan, a motion that led to some discussion of whether it was fair to put projects already under construction on the docket for consideration. Commissioner Karen Sonleitner pointed out the irony that Daugherty was up in arms about the William Cannon bridge but offered no amendments about two other projects on the list now under construction. Keel later countered that he'd be happy to second any amendment that also would put those projects on a list to be struck from the toll road system. Wynn's amendment eventually passed.

Wynn was not so fortunate on a substitute amendment to minimize the environmental impact of State Highway 45 Southwest. Hays County Commissioner Bill Burnett wanted to move forward with the segment between FM 1626 and I-35, with the understanding that frontage roads, and not Brodie Lane, would be the non-tolled alternative.

Wynn offered an alternate amendment to pull SH 45 from the toll plan and substitute the current plan for a two-lane road in each direction. That proposal could pass environmental muster far more easily than a 4-lane road in each direction or a 4-lane in each direction with 1-lane free frontage roads. Wynn said he wanted to see density dictate when lanes would be added, and those lanes could be tolled.

Burnett would not accept Wynn's proposal as a friendly amendment, he said, since the area has waited for the road for years and area growth is astronomical. Burnett's amendment on the road, which passes through Hays County, was approved.

Aquifer district joins groundwater group

The board of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District (BSEACD) voted last week to officially join the Texas Groundwater District Coalition. The board had previously expressed an interest, and last week they approved a contract solidifying the district’s membership in the coalition. In return for paying monthly dues, the BSEACD will gain a voting position. The coalition is separate from the Texas Alliance of Groundwater Districts, which has been in business since 1988.

The coalition will represent dozens of other groundwater and aquifer districts across the state during the next session of the Texas Legislature. Part of the dues will likely go to retain Ron Lewis and Sabrina Brown as lobbyists. Brown is the daughter-in-law of former state Senator "Buster" Brown, and has represented the Brazos Valley Groundwater Conservation District. Lewis is a former State Representative who has represented the LCRA and the Sabine River Authority. His expertise in water issues means he is frequently sought out as a lobbyist by groups with competing interests, which has caused some concern among BSEACD board members.

BSEACD staff member Timothy Riley explained that both Brown and Lewis had been working for the coalition without a signed contract for the past several months. During that time, Lewis was approached with an offer from another water district, the Bexar Metropolitan Water District in San Antonio ( http://www.bexarmet.org/). That district had faced fines from the Edwards Aquifer Authority ( http://www.edwardsaquifer.org/) for over-pumping in 2000. However, Lewis declined to represent Bexar Met and assured coalition representatives he would prefer to work representing their interests before the legislature.

Board members also wanted to make sure the lobbyists would be capable of representing the unique needs of the BSEACD. "There's been some talk that the coalition does not necessarily represent our interests, but more those of West Texas," said Board Member Robert Larsen. Riley explained that the dues being paid by the BSEACD would entitle the district to three votes on the coalition, which will give Central Texas a larger voice than those of some of the smaller districts paying smaller amounts.

"Right now, West Texas and water marketing is the big issue," said Riley. "I do have some concerns about that. I think the only way to deal with that is to be very proactive in our involvement in making sure that Central Texas districts are fairly represented. My perception is that the coalition, for better or for worse, will represent the groundwater districts. A lot of people are going to look to the coalition and say, 'What are the groundwater districts’ concerns?' If it becomes the voice of groundwater districts, it's imperative that we be a part of that voice."

Board Member Craig Smith agreed with Riley's assessment. "I think this is a coalition we cannot afford to not be a part of," he said. It's going to be a major player in the debate, and by ourselves I don't think we could be. That's not to say we don't need our own lobbyists. But for the big groundwater issues, we need to be part of a bigger group." The motion to join the district and pay dues passed by a vote of 5-0

Oops! . . Although they were invited to participate in a news conference of organizations supporting toll roads, the Austin Association of Professional Firefighters did not do so last week. They declined to take a position on the matter, according to AAPF spokeswoman Barbara Rush. I n Fact Daily reported that the organization was supporting the road plan and has removed the sentence from Friday’s archives. We apologize for the error . . . Candidate to address friendly crowd . . . Kelly White, the Democratic nominee for State Rep. District 48, the seat held by Republican Todd Baxter, will talk to South Austin Democrats at 6pm tonight. The group has found a new meeting place, Little Mexico Restaurant, 2304 S. 1st Street. The eating and greeting begins at 5:30pm . . . Tonight’s meetings . . . The Planning Commission will weigh in on proposed amendments to the historic zoning ordinance and elect new officers. They will meet in Room 325 of One Texas Center at 6pm . . . The MBE/WBE Advisory Committee will meet at 6pm at the SMBR Ed Bluestein Office, 4100 Ed Bluestein . . . The Airport Advisory Commission will meet at 5pm at ABIA, Dept of Aviation, Room 160, 2716 Spirit of Texas Drive.

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