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Cap Metro board united on rail referendum

Tuesday, August 17, 2004 by

Rapid bus lines expanded for "All Systems Go!" plan

A November referendum on the commuter rail issue appeared to have unanimous support at a Capital Metro board of directors work session yesterday.

Capital Metro has discussed its "All Systems Go!" long-range transit plan with the community over the last four months, about the same time frame as the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority's $2.2 billion toll road plan. The progress of Capital Metro's commuter rail plan, however, appears to be far more harmonious than the toll road plan.

Of course, the agency has already experienced defeat of one light rail referendum. Faced with a second referendum two years ago, Capital Metro's General Manager Fred Gilliam took a pass. This time, however, the board appears united under a more cautious starter rail line, with the intention to expand if the community supports rapid transit.

The "All Systems Go!" includes rapid bus, express bus and enhanced local bus service, as well as the initial commuter rail line from Leander to the Convention Center. The initial capital expenditure would be $60 million, with an operating cost of $5 million per year.

Vice Chair Margaret Gomez, who ran yesterday's meeting, stressed that the price tag would give Capital Metro a chance to expand transit services without increasing taxes.

Ultimately, the service could provide 17,000 boards per day, a figure that is ten times the current Capital Metro traffic in the corridor. Initially, however, commuter rail service would only be offered during peak hours, adding off-peak and weekend trains three years into the service plan. Gomez said it was important not to peg a particular number, knowing that the ridership may start small and grow from there. The Trinity Express between Fort Worth and Dallas started at 300 or 400 boards a day and is now at 8,000.

Proposed stations for the commuter rail line would include Leander, the Northwest Park & Ride, Howard Lane, UT Pickle Campus-Braker Lane, Lamar/Justin Lane, Highland Mall, MLK/Airport Boulevard, Saltillo Plaza and the Convention Center. Circulation plans would be studied around downtown, Mueller, Highland Mall and the UT-Pickle campus.

John Almond, who is in charge of Capital Metro's rapid transit plan, said that connectivity of rapid and enhanced bus service alongside the rail stations would be a key issue and the subject of future studies. Commuter rail lines would be intended to serve major employment centers, as well as the actual station locations.

Board member John Treviño said the commuter rail line had been labeled a "suburban" plan, but he pointed out that commuter lines go both ways. With the rail line, East Austin residents are given the chance to take jobs at the new Seton Children Hospital as well as the UT-Pickle campus and the retail development on the north end of town.

City Council Members Daryl Slusher and Danny Thomas both expressed support for the rail referendum. Thomas said the question was not "if" it was passed but "when." Slusher was concerned about circulation around downtown, especially now that a plan to extend rail out to Seaholm, or even as far as Congress, had been abandoned because of cost.

Much of the original "All Systems Go!" plan, as it was presented to the community, remains intact. The most significant change is the expansion of rapid bus lines from 3 to 10 lines—a total of 133 miles of service. Rob Smith, the director of strategic planning for Capital Metro, stressed the need for additional east-west access routes, which was a key comment from those who attended the public comment meetings.

The commuter rail line ultimately would be linked up to a larger regional system, including use of the MoKan line and service out to Elgin/Manor, Almond said. Input also indicated a desire for new express bus service to areas not serviced by Capital Metro such as Round Rock, Georgetown, Dripping Springs and Bastrop.

On August 30, the board of directors will vote to place on the November ballot a referendum on commuter rail. The study of circulator patterns would start as soon as voters approve the referendum.

Judge says local health care funding below par

Judge Guy Herman, who initiated the referendum that led to the Travis County Hospital District, told the board of managers yesterday that the current level of health care spending in Travis County falls far below most urban hospital districts in the state.

Herman acknowledged that the initial budget would be no more than status quo, but he encouraged the board of managers to raise funding levels for the district. Herman told the board of managers that the Dallas and Harris county hospital districts provide a sliding fee scale for services up to 250 percent of the poverty level. Travis County currently provides services only up to 100 percent of the poverty level, Herman said.

"These programs are covering a lot more people than we do in Travis County," Herman said. "We're really at a shortfall when you look at the coverage of patients."

The level of income is not high, Herman said. A family of four can make no more than $18,000 a year to receive benefits in Travis County. That means that the family that makes $20,000 would not make the cut. In Dallas County, however, the same family would be able to use services, as long as they agreed to make a co-payment.

"You don't provide them services, but they are ending up at Brackenridge anyway," Herman said. "This is something you're going to have to address in this community. We're continually overloading Brackenridge with people who don't have the ability to pay."

Herman's point of a "high-need community" was driven home when the Rosewood-Zaragosa Clinic—where the board of managers held Monday's meeting—ran out of vaccines early in the day, only a day before school begins in Austin. This year, children will not be admitted to public school without completed immunizations. The lack of vaccines could force hundreds of children to miss school today.

On Herman's personal agenda as a Probate Judge is the need to add in-patient and outpatient mental health care to the hospital district's list of services. An assessment of mental health care needs in the community will be a component of one of two upcoming studies required for the Travis County Hospital District under its enabling legislation.

A qualified hospital district administrator will also require a higher salary than is currently being suggested by the board of managers, Herman said. The figure suggested is $154,000. Even El Paso, the most frugal hospital district in the state, pays $260,000, Herman said. That's because the person must have a skill set that includes an intimate knowledge of both state and federal legislation, as well as the ability to secure that funding for the district.

Board members appeared attentive to Herman's comments but had little to offer in the way of discussion. Prior to Herman's presentation to the board, Manager Tom Young, the former Brackenridge administrator, outlined a number of budget principles compiled by the budget subcommittee during committee meetings last week.

Young said this year's budget is intended to be a transition, a type of baseline while the Board of Managers assesses the major gaps in health care within the community. The only additional spending would likely come from grants recently secured by the city to reopen the Montopolis clinic and open a clinic at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless.

One major decision that will have to be made, however, is a decision on standards for the medical assistance programs. The city and county have set separate standards, and Young said the board recognized it would be highly desirable to make a choice on which standards to adopt before county commissioners agreed on a final budget for the district.

Young said it would be no surprise to anyone that the committee had discussed reserve funds, a comment that drew a laugh from the small audience. Young said the committee noted the need for two kinds of reserve funds: those that provided some liquidity to address expenses and another type intended to cover the district against financial risk.

A presentation on the possible financial risks of the district is still under development. Manager Frank Rodriguez, a former assistant city manager, is taking the lead on the risk assessment presentation.

Today’s meetings . . . The Zoning and Platting Commission will meet at 6pm in Room 325 of One Texas Center . . . The Land and Facilities Committee of the Parks and Recreation Board is scheduled to meet at noon at 200 South Lamar. The staff will present recommendations for redevelopment of Rainey Street but will not make a proposal concerning bow fishing. The latter has been postponed until September. The Planning Commission committee on Capital Improvements will meet at 6pm in the 3rd floor Conference room at 1011 San Jacinto . . . Harper honored . . . Capital Metro Board Members observed a minute of silence at the start of the meeting on Monday in honor of David Harper, who passed away last week. His picture was placed at his seat on the dais during the board's work session. Many Capital Metro staff members in the audience wore black bands across badges, and black ribbons were offered at the door in remembrance of Harper. "It is with great sadness that I will miss President Harper," said Travis County Commissioner Margaret Gomez, who chaired the meeting. "We certainly want to continue the way he would have done: tirelessly and in an effort to serve the community” . . . Candidate parade begins early . . . Even though they cannot formally begin their campaigns until November, candidates for City Council have already begun addressing interest groups such as the Save Barton Creek Association and talking to politicos around town. Last night, Jeff Trigger talked to SBCA and Jennifer Kim addressed the same group last week. Others who have expressed an interest in running next spring include Mandy Dealey, Lee Leffingwell, Gregg Knaupe, Chris Riley, Margot Clarke and Robin Cravey. There will be others, but these are the names surfacing most often . . . AISD kids start school today . . . Mayor Will Wynn will be at Casis Elementary School at 7:20 this morning to assist in APD’s campaign to stop aggressive driving. Wynn will be at the crosswalk at his children’s school to remind drivers that they should slow down now that school has started . . . Longhorn pipeline moves ahead . . . The Office of Pipeline Safety has given the Longhorn Pipeline formal approval to begin operations. According to company spokesperson Don Martin, federal judge Sam Sparks yesterday denied the city’s motion for an emergency temporary injunction to prevent Longhorn from beginning operations. The company expects to begin filling the gasoline pipeline, which will transport significant quantities of refined oil products from the Houston area to El Paso in late September. Longhorn upgraded the 50-year-old pipeline to meet requirements imposed by federal regulators, but Austin and other plaintiffs believe that the pipeline still poses a threat to people and the environment in Travis County. Longhorn insists that its plan and safety improvements are “unprecedented” within the industry . . . Diazinon registration cancelled . . . The Environmental Protection Agency has announced that stores will no longer be allowed to sell products containing the pesticide diazinon for non-farm purposes. The Save Our Springs Alliance, which sued the EPA for allowing such products to be registered for use without consulting the US Fish and Wildlife Service on the pesticide’s impact on the Barton Springs salamander, yesterday urged consumers to stop using such products. They also urged storeowners to immediately stop selling products containing diazinon, although the EPA order allows existing stocks to be sold. In 2000 and 2001, the US Geological Service found significant levels of diazinon, atrazine and two other pesticides in Barton Springs Pool and Eliza Springs. According to John Fritschie of SOS, both diazinon and atrazine have been found to disrupt reproductive cycles in amphibians. He said there is also a concern about the impact of these compounds on human health. Fritschie said pesticide makers have intervened in the lawsuit, delaying the resolution of the suit, which is pending in federal court in Washington, DC. SOS will be posting a list of the prohibited products on its website within the next few days. Diazinon is found in a multitude of forms, including insecticides, spectracide and certain fertilizers.

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