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RMA board adopts CAMPO's toll road amendments

Thursday, July 29, 2004 by

William Canon tolls to be separated from others for use on MoPac

With the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization's vote behind them, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA) is now in the position to move forward with its ambitious plan for a regional toll road system.

A group of angry citizens attended the CAMPO meeting earlier this month, protesting the proposed toll road plan and threatening recall for the elected officials who voted for it. Curiously, the first meeting of the 7-member CTRMA board after that vote, however, was a rather sedate occasion in the Lower Colorado River Authority's boardroom, with the only speakers being a handful of stalwart supporters of the plan.

The CTRMA board was presented with a number of letters from elected officials to support the resolutions approved by CAMPO's Transportation Policy Committee on July 12. In one letter, Mayor Will Wynn and Council Member Brewster McCracken wrote that it was "critical" that all resolutions be met before any toll road was built in the region.

CAMPO Chair Gonzalo Barrientos sent a more neutral letter to the board with a copy of the CAMPO resolutions, saying that he looked forward to working closely with the board to implement an "environmentally sensitive multi-modal transportation system" for Central Texas.

Commissioner Karen Sonleitner was one of five speakers who took the podium at the meeting, telling board members she had "felt their pain" during the long two months leading up to the vote. She also encouraged the board to follow the resolutions with the utmost seriousness.

"This is a prenup," Sonleitner said. "These are not a bunch of hollow empty words. That plan does not exist without these amendments any more than these amendments exist without that plan."

Sonleitner also presented a 7-page letter she sent out to everyone who had contacted her office on the toll road issue. In the letter, Sonleitner wrote that the vote on the regional toll road system was one of the toughest votes of her 10-year career as an elected official. She went on to write that she had carefully studied the issue and encouraged those who wrote that "this was far from over" to stay involved in the process.

But Sonleitner also didn't hesitate to lay some of the blame at the feet of state lawmakers.

"Let me also drop in here I’m not happy that I was forced to make decisions that in effect bail out the state on its mandated responsibilities to fund, to build and to maintain a safe and efficient transportation system, and yes, that includes pedestrian and cycling accommodations," Sonleitner wrote in one part of her letter. "By the way, perhaps you ought to inquire of the five state representatives who voted against this plan why they put CAMPO in this place to begin with, by failing to adequately fund TxDOT, by failing to address the state gas tax in more than 10 years, by failing to look at a regional gas tax, by diverting 1/4 of state gas tax revenues to fund education and by diverting more than $50 million dollars annually from the gas tax to pay for DPS. You have every right to be disappointed—start with your elected legislators who want to NOT tax and NOT spend. The next session starts in January."

It was no real surprise that the CTRMA board voted in its own resolution to support the resolutions to the CAMPO plan. What was interesting was some of the discussion provided by Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein and Attorney Brian Cassidy, who reviewed the eight resolutions with the board members prior to the resolution. For instance, the tolls from the William Cannon bridge project are being pulled entirely out of the toll road revenue plan. Profits will be plowed back only into the MoPac corridor from State Highway 45 on the south to Parmer Lane on the north. Revenues will be dedicated to sound walls, retrofitted water quality controls and a possible future commuter rail line, as well as toll express lanes from William Cannon to downtown and from Parmer Lane to downtown.

High-occupancy vehicle lanes have been suggested in the past to resolve some of the congestion on MoPac, but the million-dollar price tag made the construction of the lanes cost-prohibitive for CAMPO.

The resolution, however, means that the William Cannon toll project will be a stand-alone project that will not be packaged with the others at the bond sale, Cassidy said. That counters criticism that the project was intended to be a "cash cow" for the toll road system. Cassidy said it would not be the habit of the board to pull a project out of the system but that Loop 1 was "a very unique situation."

"It's very clear that this is a special corridor, a core corridor, that requires and deserves a lot of attention and special care, whatever mobility use it might be," Chair Bob Tesch said.

Heiligenstein said the future of MoPac depended on the willingness of Union Pacific to vacate its rail line down the center of the roadway. If Union Pacific moves, the Central Texas RMA would have a significantly larger project. Without that rail line, efforts will be concentrated in other areas, Heiligenstein said.

Texas Toll Party ready for recall campaign

The Texas Toll Party has retained Linda Curtis to lead its campaign to recall Mayor Will Wynn and Council Member Brewster McCracken.

Wynn, McCracken and Council Member Danny Thomas voted for the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority's$2.2 billion toll road system at the CAMPO ( Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization) meeting on July 12. Thomas was spared the same treatment because campaign organizers believe that term limits will stop Thomas from running again.

Curtis helped pass Austin’s current campaign finance law in 1997. In 2002, she helped then Council Member Beverly Griffith collect enough signatures to get on the ballot for a third term. Council Member Betty Dunkerley defeated Griffith. Curtis also ran against Council Member Jackie Goodman that year and sued Goodman and the City of Austin. Her efforts were unsuccessful on both scores. However, no one questions her prowess in the area of signature gathering. Curtis now lives in Bastrop.

The name of the fledgling Texas Toll Party is intended to evoke the Boston Tea Party, which was a widespread revolt against taxes. Toll roads are what organizer Sal Costello is calling "double taxation" or using the state's tax money to underwrite toll roads that will rely on user fees. Costello, whose name has been published in all the area's major newspapers in recent weeks, also is the founder of People for Efficient Transportation.

Costello and the Texas Toll Party are now meeting weekly at the Austin History Center to organize efforts to stop both the Austin-area toll road plan and the politicians who supported it. Costello said the group's goal was "to take back our city."

This week, Costello will launch the group's website, www.texastollparty.com, as a way to mobilize dissatisfied taxpayers in both Austin and other cities around the state. Across the bottom of the web page, which Costello previewed at last night's meeting, are a number of steps for the group, including the petition drive to recall Wynn and McCracken, as well as an email campaign on the Capitol. The group also intends to develop a number of toll road options. Costello said he hoped members of the staff at the Texas Department of Transportation would send suggestions to help the group craft its various options.

The Texas Toll Party wants to recall or defeat politicians who voted for the toll plan and repeal House Bill 3588, which created regional mobility authorities. Rep. Mike Krusee (R-Round Rock) carried House Bill 3588, the bill that created the state's regional mobility authorities. On the Texas Toll Party website, the group solicits volunteers to work for candidate Karen Felthauser, Krusee's opponent in the November. Felthauser, readers of the website were assured, is a strong opponent to the current toll road plan.

Costello said he had received at least 200 emails from people around the state who are alarmed about the intention to use toll roads to build the state's future freeways. Urban transportation planner Bill Barker, who lives in San Antonio, was one of those people.

In a presentation to the group, Barker acknowledged that the state is losing out on gasoline tax dollars, but pointed to statistics that showed that additional lane miles don't necessarily cut down on congestion in major cities, according to data provided by the Texas Transportation Institute. More roads simply encourage more driving, Barker said.

Barker and Costello both said that the Austin toll plan signifies a new direction for the state's transportation strategy. In the past, toll roads were typically used for only extremely expensive projects or as an element of a larger system. In Houston and Dallas, toll roads supplement an existing freeway system. The toll road plan in Austin, however, uses tolls to replace the general highway construction once handled by the state. Toll roads become the region's system of transportation, putting a greater burden on the residents of the state's urban areas.

Barker's argument was that if roads were limited, people eventually would shift to live in the areas where they have the shortest commute. Barker recommended land policies that encourage dense development, inner city redevelopment and tolls limited to bypass highways, major bridges/tunnels or freeways that circle around the city.

When Barker asked members of the group how many of them were at the meeting because they didn't think toll roads were a good idea, only one person raised a hand. A good number of people, however, said they were at the meeting because they thought their comments were ignored, transportation plans were being forced on the public, the pace made them feel uncomfortable and they thought a better toll plan could be developed.

Austin Energy programs top Council agenda

This week’s 39-page agenda includes most of the items the Council postponed from June meetings plus 18 zoning cases set for 4pm and five public hearings scheduled to begin at 6pm. It’s almost enough to make a sane person ask why anyone not being paid would attend these meetings. Fortunately, many of the items will be approved routinely and some have widespread public support.

Austin Energy is bringing seven items to the Council for approval, four of which relate to rebates for installation of solar photovoltaic systems and one to provide funding for an onsite energy installation at the new Seton Children’s Hospital at RMMA. In addition, Austin Energy is asking for approval of two service agreements, one with Navigant Consulting and another with Conservation Services Group.

A spokesman for Austin Energy explained, “As the utility industry moves to on-site generation, such as fuel cells and solar power, Austin Energy must learn to incorporate such distributed generation into a business model that preserves the utility profits and General Fund transfer. An internal Austin Energy team is working on such a non-traditional energy business model, and Navigant Consulting has been retained to assist the utility in value-added analysis and other business analysis to develop that model.”

Mayor Will Wynn has placed five items on this week’s Items from Council section of the agenda. Those include a directive to the City Manager to investigate establishing a Clean Energy Research and Development Center in Austin with the assistance of community and business groups. Furthermore, he and Council Members Brewster McCracken and Danny Thomas are directing the manager to investigate the feasibility of integrating the local transportation sector with the electric utility at some future date.

In Fact Daily the following email message: "This week's agenda is a remarkable demonstration of how this Council and city staff have put in place dynamic energy policies and approaches that stand to reap huge dividends for our local economy and our environment. The agenda includes solar rebates, the Navigant Consulting item, a behind-the-meter chiller at the new Children's Hospital and my two clean energy Items From Council. Truly remarkable."

Austin’s water utility is asking for approval of four construction and engineering services contracts and also is hoping to execute a contract with the Village of San Leanna for wholesale water service. The law department is requesting permission to add a $300,000 amendment to its contract with Scott, Douglas & McConnico to defend the lawsuit filed by SR Ridge Limited Partnership in connection with Wal-Mart’s decision not to build on a tract near Stratus Properties’ development in Southwest Austin.

At least one of the controversial zoning cases may not be heard. The developer of single-family housing on the old Jockey Tract has reportedly decided to withdraw his request to change from a commercial designation to single-family in an area burdened by noise from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. However that still leaves a wide range of zoning problems for the Council to solve. In addition, the family of Melton West, who built an additional story on his condo in violation of city regulations, may or may not return for a decision on an appeal from the Planning Commission, which rejected his plea for a height waiver. Neighbors of a proposed halfway house for women on North Lamar have been working hard to make sure the Council has ample information explaining their point of view. A lengthy document being distributed to Council offices this week is entitled “23 Reasons the City Council should deny a conditional use permit for 5117 North Lamar Blvd.”

Music network switch to ACTV moving forward

Access TV producers heat up Council subcommittee meeting

After enduring darts meant for the Austin Community Television (ACTV) board, the City Council Committee for Telecommunications Infrastructure yesterday asked city staff to provide assistance to ACTV to find room for AMN programming before the current contract to run the network expires on October 1. "We're trying to make room for ten hours out of the 500 hours that currently are programmed by ACTV," said Council Member Raul Alvarez, summarizing the desire of the committee that the AMN brand and logo continue to be visible on cable TV.

They also directed staff to get a written proposal from Austin Music Partners, the group that hopes to take over the operation of Channel 15. Once the Austin Music Network vacates Channel 15, the private organization has proposed to run it as a commercial regional music network. Committee members want to have documents available for the public on the city's web site as they face a decision about how to manage the final days of the AMN on Channel 15. The network eliminated the last of its full time staff this week and is being operated by part-time employees and interns with help from a computerized system. ( See In Fact Daily, July 28, 2004.)

AMN General Manager Louis Meyers is already in talks with the ACTV board to begin using the community-access TV outlet as a base of operations sometime in August. That would likely involve a request for the city to divert the remaining $15,000 promised to the Kenneth Threadgill Music Project for this fiscal year to ACTV to cover operating expenses for AMN. Meyers estimates it will take about $20,000 to run the network until October, but told Council members that the $5,000 difference could be raised from outside sources. "It would allow us to finish the current contract period without going into any default or needing any extra funding," he said of the plan to move AMN into ACTV facilities. "At this point, we've gone ten months without asking for any extra funding from the city. We’ve asked for a little advance on our own funding, but not one penny extra…and we have no intention of doing that."

The request to advance the final $15,000 payment will likely have to be taken up by the full City Council at a meeting in August. The City Manager's office recently wrote a letter to Meyers pledging not to advance any more funds (see In Fact Daily, July 16, 2004). The political spotlight on the music network would also make any change in the funding schedule, no matter how small, a highly charged issue.

The attention focused on the music network, said Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, had too often highlighted only the shortcomings and ignored the network's accomplishments. She recalled her own activism in securing the music network as part of the package from Time-Warner. " Over the years the music community has supported that channel, not only for their own access but for public access, as an acknowledgment and as a symbol of what music is for Austin. It’s very much a part of our culture, our image, part of our economics. Over the years, too, there has been a great deal of targeting of AMN…and when they were able to have sponsorships and help in operational costs that way, they’ve been undermined by the fact that some of the media in town doesn’t like the fact that the city is involved in supporting our local musicians and music community. So that the upshot of that has been a kind of shaky sponsorship participation because the Statesman(stories) . . . that imply that the death of AMN is imminent. Sponsorships have been hard to come by because people don’t want to put money into something that is about to cease."

The integration of AMN into the ACTV fold, although approved by the ACTV Board, may not come easily. More than 50 ACTV producers crowded into Wednesday's meeting in the 3rd floor conference room at City Hall to voice their opposition. The crowd spilled out into the hallway as some watched the gathering on a closed-circuit television feed.

Many of the spectators were there to support syndicated radio talk-show host Alex Jones, who also has a public-access cable TV show. In a boisterous speech for his supporters and the numerous home video cameras at the meeting, Jones decried the proposed change at ACTV as an attack on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. "If you take three channels and put music and 'education' on two of them, and then you've got another channel," he said, "what access was designed by Congress for is relegated to one channel." Jones, a conspiracy buff, was referring to a plan, approved by the board of ACTV, to switch from free-form programming on the current three access channels to a block-programming concept. That would reserve one channel for music and education, one channel for religious programming, and one channel for free-speech and public affairs programs such as Jones'.

The ACTV board, apart from discussions over the future of the Austin Music Network, approved that plan. But ACTV, Jones argued, should not be forced to share any of its programming hours with AMN. "Access television was chartered first and foremost to be a venue for political speech to get involved and stand up against government corruption," he said. Jones also predicted that the changes at ACTV were a prelude to an outright dismantling of access TV in Austin. "I am committed to an energetic, legal battle against this scenario," he said. "We all need to be involved in a class action first amendment lawsuit." Several other speakers, some wearing T-shirts with the phrase "Tyranny Response Unit", echoed Jones' comments. Other used their time to criticize the Patriot Act, the Bush administration, and corporately-owned media outlets.

Other ACTV producers had more immediate concerns about sharing their limited space and equipment with another entity. "We have local music on ACTV. We already have that kind of venue," said Gary Johnson, who questioned the need for AMN. "ACTV has been operated responsibly over the years. It has stayed within its budget. It has fulfilled its contractual obligations and fulfilled its promises. On the other hand, the Austin Music Network has exceeded its budget. It has broken its promises. It cannot be trusted. This is the real problem I have with this," he said.

After the ACTV producers spent more than two hours venting their frustrations, the committee turned its attention to making sure some type of programming remains on Channel 15 regardless of the eventual decision regarding AMN or the Austin Music Partners. Meyers assured the committee that there would be no need for the station to cease programming, or "go dark".

"In terms of after October 1st of keeping something on Channel 15, our automation system can take care of that with very little human input," he said. "There's already more than enough encoded and programmed in to handle that." Still, Council Member Betty Dunkerley offered a resolution directing staff to come up with a contingency plan.

That discussion led to some surprising news about the ramifications if the city fails to maintain programming on Channel 15. The emphasis on keeping a signal on the station has been the fear that the channel would automatically revert to the control of Time-Warner Cable if it remains dark for more than 24 hours. However, Rondella Hawkins of the city's Office of Telecommunications and Regulatory Affairs told Council members that provision was not in the city's franchise agreement with the cable company. "It only states that the City Council shall allocate up to 13 access channels. It doesn't talk about if it is under-utilized or not utilized at all, that it automatically reverts back to the cable companies. It’s not defined that way," she said. Hawkins did note that an absence of programming would give Time-Warner substantial leverage to claim that the channel was not being utilized to the full benefit of subscribers. But an automatic return of Channel 15, she said, was not spelled out.

Members of the committee were taken aback by that analysis of the contract. "Maybe we should find out what Time-Warner legal has been saying for all these years," said Goodman. "It's a pretty critical point, and this is a brand new tune that I've never heard played before. I'm happy to hear it, but it's a little irritating to think something for 30 years and find out maybe it's not so." Dunkerley said it would be better to be safe than sorry in programming the channel. "I don't want to run the risk of being in court over something that I've always thought would go away if we had 24 hours of blank time," she said. "I just want to be really sure that the staff has a plan."

Budget coming out . . . City Manager Toby Futrell will present her budget proposal to the City Council at 2pm today. She told In Fact Daily not to expect any surprises. “This is a ‘hold the line’ kind of budget,” she said, noting that the city’s revenue collections are coming in as expected. “To me the real story is going to be as you move to ‘06 how do you do rebuilding,” of city staff, she said. “So many things have been left undone since the economy hit the skids nearly four years ago; the big question is, where do you start?” Futrell said . . . Historic zoning ordinance . . . Changes proposed for historic zoning, including a reduction in tax abatements, will likely not be considered today. The item is complex, controversial and is dead last on the 113-item agenda. The Planning Commission made its final recommendations Tuesday night and city staff worked diligently to make sure that the many conflicting recommendations can be presented to the Council today, if they reach that item . . . Commuter Rail D-Day. . . Capital Metro has designated Aug. 16 as the day the presentation on the proposed commuter rail line from Leander to Downtown will be discussed.

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