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RMA gearing up to hear from public

Thursday, August 26, 2004 by

First toll road open to be William Cannon Bridge

Tolls for Central Texas drivers will start next April, which means those who want their voices to be heard when those tolls are established need to get involved in the process now.

The controversial William Cannon Bridge, ironically, will be the first portion of the toll road system to open for business next spring. Tolls will be set about 60 days ahead of the opening, and between now and then, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority will be meeting with focus groups and neighborhood associations to gather feedback.

The key to the process will be CTRMA's business rules and policy process, a notebook of guidelines that the board of directors will approve in October. As vague as the title might sound, this notebook will be the place where the toll authority will outline steps it will take to set tolls and the kind of policies it will have for toll users.

For instance, the business rules will outline how the RMA will treat those who pass through the toll plazas without paying or whose toll tags have been depleted, said CTRMA Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein. The toll authority could decide to fine the toll road user. Or the toll authority could use a more customer-friendly method of providing users with warnings. All of these types of policies will be well defined before the first project opens, he said.

"We want to be seen as consumer friendly," Heiligenstein said. "If you send a fine because someone's toll tag needs to be recharged, that kind of information is going to spread like wildfire. Our desire is to make drivers bona fide customers that want to use the toll road system. We want to keep them as customers."

The business policies also should give Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization ( CAMPO) policy makers a good idea of just how seriously the RMA has taken their suggestions. Resolutions passed by CAMPO – sensitivity to the economic and social factors affecting toll rates, context-sensitive design, toll equity across the region – all will be addressed in the policies set by the board next month.

Heiligenstein said CTRMA would have broad latitude on how toll rates are set on its 70-mile toll system, as long as the toll authority meets bond obligations. In the case of the William Cannon Bridge, in particular, revenues will not be used for bond payments but be dedicated to improvements along MoPac.

For instance, community feedback could lead the RMA to decide that the fare on the William Cannon Bridge should be limited until the study phase of the MoPac construction is completed and then increased as construction gets underway. Or the authority could decide that a per month usage fee with unlimited numbers of trips might be preferable to a per use fee for those who might use the bridge frequently.

Messages like that have been lost in the anger over toll road projects, but it's Heiligenstein's hope to go out to neighborhood associations and civic groups to correct some of the misperceptions about toll roads, then get down to discussing specifics.

Consulting Engineer Richard Ridings said toll rates typically are set only one to two months before the section of road is opened. Along with local feedback, the toll authority will need to consider traffic projections, economic trends and gas prices. All of those factors will go into the final price of the toll as the 11 toll projects are rolled out.

Ridings says meetings on context-sensitive construction, toll pricing and public involvement are all being launched by the RMA. Ridings calls those three the toll authority's "three-legged stool." While different, each must be completed. This fall, meetings should be scheduled on a weekly basis.

Meyers outlines plan to continue music on Channel 15

Austin Music Network General Manager Louis Meyers presented a proposal on Wednesday to the City Council Telecommunications Commission to continue programming on Channel 15 past September 30. Meyers proposes to continue music programming on the channel for four months if no private entity is able to step up and take over programming when the current city contract with AMN expires. The city has been in discussions with Austin Music Partners to allow that group to operate a regional music network on that channel, but no deal has been signed.

Meyers' proposal would require no funding from the city. Instead, he would work with Austin Community Television to provide programming on Channel 15 using material from the ACTV archives, AMN archives, and the independent producers for both AMN and ACTV. "I would like to see Channel 15 used until such a time as a third party, whether it's Austin Music Partners or someone else, is actually ready to broadcast on it," said Meyers. "With the help from ACTV, from a management housing standpoint, we can operate it on money we can generate with the true understanding that if and when Connie (Wodlinger) and AMP are ready to broadcast it would go over to them."

Under the outline submitted by Meyers, ACTV could use Channel 15 to launch " EATV"; a channel devoted to music and arts programming. The ACTV board has been discussing for more than a year a plan to group programs with similar themes on separate channels, reserving one channel for arts and music, one channel for news and "free speech" programs, and one for religious shows. By starting the arts and entertainment channel on Channel 15, Meyers said, ACTV could leave two of the three channels it manages as purely "free speech" channels.

The primary expense for the plan submitted by Meyers would be moving the station's master control equipment to a new location. There would also be a cost for storing the station's tape archive. But Meyers said those could easily be handled for less than $20,000, which was an amount that had previously set aside for portable toilets and other expenses related to the network's move out of its facilities at the old Robert Mueller Airport.

While EATV would be significantly different from AMN, Meyers said it could help keep AMN alive "in spirit…making sure that the positive things it has done have the ability to continue." But he conceded that AMN in its current form would disappear when the contract with the city runs out. "As a 24-hour broadcast medium, we know it's not fundable," he said.

ACTV's plans to begin assigning programming to specific channels based on theme were the subject of most of the discussion at Wednesday's meeting. Producers, including syndicated talk show host Alex Jones, have decried the move as one that would improperly limit their free speech. The ACTV board's plans to designate one channel out of the three as " Free TV", they argue, would cut by two-thirds the amount of air time available for shows devoted to news, talk, and opinions. Although the City Council does not have control over the programming decisions of the ACTV Board, producers have been taking their complaints to the Council and the Telecommunications Subcommittee over the past few months.

Six of those producers, led by Jones and Stefan Wray, have hired attorney Steve Gibbins as a prelude to legal action should the board continue with its plans to assign programming to specific channels. On Wednesday, Gibbins filed a petition in Travis County District Court requesting permission to depose ACTV board members and subpoena their records. "We do this somewhat reluctantly. We wish that we could work this out," said Wray. "We are very concerned about some of the things we've learned about what the board is planning to do…Austin's free speech and non-commercial public access television channels are threatened by the board's channel reorganization."

Council Member Raul Alvarez said he would be sending a letter to ACTV board members encouraging them to re-think the reorganization proposal. "I want to encourage the board again to reach out and listen to what's being said and incorporate what's being said into this proposal," he said. "

Alvarez and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman invited ACTV representatives to respond to the charges. Board member Henry Calderon explained the reorganization was designed to make it easier for viewers to find their favorite programs, since the "first-come, first-serve" system of assigning times for programs to run resulted in a chaotic programming schedule. "The biggest complaint we got was that at 7:59 they'd watch some type of programming, and at 8:01 it would be something else," he said. "That was very frustrating to them…and they weren't able to have any idea what was coming on next." He described it as a natural outgrowth of a "block programming" strategy first put into place six years ago. "It was never the intent of the board to eliminate, control content, or manipulate any of the shows. That's been the board's decision from day one. The only thing that we wanted…was that the community could have some idea as to what show they were going to watch," he said.

Goodman suggested a joint meeting between the Telecommunications Commission and the Music Commission to further discuss some of the ACTV issues.

Commission postpones subdivision consideration

Neighbors of the proposed Edward Joseph subdivision in far East Austin agreed with the developer this week to postpone Planning Commission consideration of the subdivision’s preliminary plan until September 14. Community activist Daniel Llanes also requested that the commission ask the Environmental Board to study the impact of the subdivision’s planned water retention pond on Boggy Creek.

Scott Jones of Lockwood Engineers, Inc., said the water quality facility was in compliance with city codes and that a hearing by the Environmental Board would be a waste of time since there are no issues to review. Commissioners voiced concerns about the possibility of flooding along Boggy Creek. Smart Housing Project Manager Javier Delgado explained that going before the Environmental Board for subdivision review with no requests for variances was not standard procedure.

Jones said he thought the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department had already approved a 50-foot setback from the retention pond. However, he had learned that he had to submit further information, so the commission could not have approved the plan this week anyway.

Changes at Austin Energy . . . Austin Energy General Manager Juan Garza has announced organizational changes that will give the utility two deputy general managers for the first time. Roger Duncan has been named Deputy General Manager for Distributed Energy Services effective immediately. Austin Energy also will be looking for a Deputy General Manager for Centralized Energy Services as part of the new organizational structure. In a memo to the utility’s employees, Garza said, “Austin Energy's Strategic Plan lays out the goals we must achieve to continue and improve our provision of clean, affordable, reliable energy services and excellent customer service. It has also crystallized goals that prepare our company for new opportunities in a changing utility environment.” . . . Politics makes long-term enemies . . . Alfred Stanley, Democratic activist and veteran fundraiser, tells In Fact Daily he got a surprising phone call from independent activist and veteran signature gatherer Linda Curtis. He said Curtis started the conversation “by saying that politics make strange bedfellows.” The upshot of the call, Stanley said, was that Curtis was hoping to hire her former foe to raise funds for the recall group PET PAC, founded by Sal Costello to remove Mayor Will Wynn and Council Members Brewster McCracken and Danny Thomas from office. But Stanley remembers that Curtis not only ran against his candidate and friend Jackie Goodman, among others, but also insulted him in print. Stanley concluded, “The charmer who once told the Chronicle, " 'He's a sleazeball who's afraid I'll take his job,' has offered me one” . . . Meanwhile, on the other side . . . CRCL-PAC ( Citizens for Responsible Community Leadership), founded by Tim Taylor, announced the names of more than 30 business, civic, environmental and political leaders who have agreed to serve on the steering committee for the anti-recall group. Taylor said the group is asking Austinites to add their names to an on-line list of recall opponents at Taylor said the group’s only objective is “to bring this recall effect to a swift end and move on to meaningful ways to address the challenges that face our community and region.” The steering committee includes Diana Zuniga, Paul Silver, Ronney Reynolds, Mary Scott Nabers, Jim Marston, Bryan King, Jay Gohil, Bob Cole, and Bobbie Barker, among others . . . Today’s Council meeting . . . If attendees are lucky, the meeting will be over by midnight. However, there are numerous contentious issues for the Council to consider. Those include the University Neighborhood Overlay and associated zoning cases, the changes to the Forum PUD, a possible dispute over whether to authorize a five year agreement AMPCO System Parking for management of parking facilities at the new City Hall, One Texas Center and I-35 at 7th Street . . . Special RMA meeting . . . The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority has set a special meeting for Sept. 8. The agenda will include the selection of the marketing firm to handle toll tags and consideration of a Comprehensive Development Agreement on US 183A.

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