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Krusee: rail opponent recycling arguments

Friday, September 17, 2004 by

Daugherty seeks to bring civility back to mobility debate

Instead of watching fireworks, members of the Real Estate Council of Austin ( RECA) heard mostly facts and figures during the debate over the merits of Capital Metro's commuter rail proposal at their meeting Thursday. Former tech industry executive Jim Skaggs led the charge against the proposition on the November 2 ballot. His ally, Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, was originally scheduled to take part in the debate but did not participate.

"I am removing myself today because I am, as you all know, a bit of a lightning rod," Daugherty explained to the lunchtime crowd that gathered for the meeting, held at the Four Seasons Hotel. “I want this to be a fact-finding mission for each and every one of you."

Daugherty called for elevating the tone of debate on transportation issues, a point that won him a round of applause. "Folks, it is time for us to put some decorum back into this community with regards to what we do with mobility and transportation," he said. "I can tell you that if there is another meeting that is conducted like the one I went to Monday night, then I will absolutely walk out of a meeting like that.” He was referring to the CAMPO meeting earlier this week, which included a shouting match and personal attacks on two CAMPO board members ( See In Fact Daily, September 14, 2004.) (Also, see Whispers, below.)

Skaggs, who worked with Daugherty to fight Capital Metro's light rail proposal four years ago, brought many of the same arguments to the table concerning the commuter rail proposal. While he did not use the "costs too much, does too little" catch phrase that was popular on bumper stickers in 2000, he did predict the passenger trains running between Leander and downtown Austin would wind up running virtually empty.

"Commuter rail's low ridership will have no impact on congestion when it opens, or 20 years after it opens," he said. "It will cost taxpayers, probably, $10,000 or more for every single rider that rides the train on a daily basis." He also disputed Capital Metro's claims that running service on existing track would enable them to start the rail system for $60 million. "There are a lot of things left out of that cost, including the cost of the trains," he said, pegging the start-up cost as being closer to $100 million. "I believe the cost to be very under-estimated."

The task of defending the commuter rail proposal fell to State Representative Mike Krusee, who four years ago sided with Daugherty and Skaggs against light rail. Krusee praised Capital Metro for responding to its critics, who complained the $1 billion price tag for light rail was too high. "I don't know of anyone in the country that's proposed a more efficient system than this one,” he said. “If you're ever going to be for rail under any circumstances, this plan in this place is the time to do it.”

Krusee also challenged Skaggs' analysis of the financial data. "I have the benefit of having been on the other side just a couple of years ago, so all those arguments are really familiar,” he said. “But here's the thing: The plan has changed. [Skaggs is] arguing the exact same thing he argued last time: that $10,000 per rider…it was the same figure when it was a billion-dollar system." He also accused Skaggs of making inappropriate comparisons to transit systems elsewhere in the country, including commuter rail service in the Seattle-Tacoma, Wash. area. That system, Krusee said, had cost more than $300 million to start up because the transit agency did not already own the track as Capital Metro does. "I'm familiar with all these tactics because I used them," he said.

The two men also split over the impact rail would have on development. Krusee told the group of business and real estate professionals that rail had the potential to significantly raise property values near passenger terminals, spurring economic growth and generating more tax revenue in the long run for the city. He added that rail would be essential to the creation of the high-density, mixed-use development planned to help reduce urban sprawl. "It is obvious the opportunities that await us at Mueller and Robinson Ranch and Leander along this line," he said. "If we pass them up now, those things will be developed in an inferior way at much, much less value."

But Skaggs argued that any concentration of development at key junctures along the rail line would not necessarily be a net gain to the city. "It is a relocation if it occurs, from somewhere else to that spot," he said. "It's not clear to me that the spot that this particular line is on is the right spot for development. Why should we in Austin subsidize development in Leander?" He also pointed to the ongoing development of mixed-use projects in Austin as evidence that they did not require nearby rail to be successful. "Rail should be considered not for economic development, but on the merits of its operation as a transportation system," he concluded.

While neither Krusee nor Skaggs used the debate to attack each other, Skaggs did use his closing remarks to make accusations against other supporters of the commuter rail proposal. "I believe that all of those out there, primarily our leaders who are working to support this and who have conflicts of interest, should back away from the debate," he said, without naming any one individual specifically. "Because there are too many in this room who have conflicts that are not stated and are supporting this…not for the reason that they believe in it, but for the reason of their pocketbook." Skaggs thus ended any “Kumbaya” feelings those in the room might have felt after hearing Daugherty’s plea for civility before the debate.

Organizer seeks emails, finds critics

The organizer of an anti-toll road group is circulating an e-mail among city neighborhood associations, advocating closer ties among the city's civic associations.

Texas People for Efficient Transportation ( PET) Director Russ Hodes gathered e-mail addresses from 100 neighborhood associations in Austin, quite a feat given that the city has not updated its neighborhood contacts directory in quite a while. Contacts in an e-mail Hodes sent out Sunday afternoon included neighborhoods as diverse as Balcones Woods, Brentwood, Old West Austin and Delwood.

In the e-mail, Hodes described himself as "a neighborhood volunteer who is very interested in keeping Austin's unique neighborhoods alive and active." He goes on to suggest that neighborhoods need to "share ideas, concerns and news with each other in a much more active way. The world around us is changing faster all the time, so we, as homeowners, need to respond even faster. (School Bonds, ACC taxes, Toll Roads, Hospital Districts, and Commuter Rail – all in one year!!)"

One recipient, who did not want to be identified, rolled her eyes and called the e-mail "deceptive." Hodes wrote his pitch to the neighborhoods groups in a manner that suggested he was just another homeowner hoping to network. The e-mail recipient, who provided the e-mail to In Fact Daily, suggested that Hodes should have disclosed his role with PET and that he is from Circle C.

According to the group's own posting on a local website, "PET (People for Efficient Transportation) is a Central Texas-based nonprofit, a 501(c)3 organization that is dedicated to the utilization of the best available technology and methods to move people, goods and information in ways that ensure our transportation infrastructure evolves into the most efficient and cohesive system possible."

PET Political Action Committee, or PET PAC, is the arm behind the Austin Toll Party, organized to repeal House Bill 3588 and recall elected officials supporting the toll road plan. Hodes was a vocal opponent of the toll plan at Monday night's meeting of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Hodes certainly has a right to gather e-mails and network neighborhood groups. What offended the recipient was that it was sent from Hodes' PET e-mail account. In fact, Hodes wrote in his e-mail, "This is not about party politics, election campaigns, recalls or anything else like that. This is only about sharing information at the neighborhood level. Making sure we are all keep (sic) advised."

Hodes said he hoped to create a newsletter at some point, but wanted to continue a simple e-mail list for updates for the time being.

Something to brag about? . . People for Efficient Transportation leader Sal Costello put out a news release yesterday to advertise the airing of video from CAMPO’s Monday-night “Toll Road Firestorm. ” To quote Costello, “The last 45 minutes was OUT OF CONTROL. Watch your elected officials get the "piñata" treatment for ignoring the public and siding with the special interests (and in some cases self-interests!).” Costello says the tape will air at 7am, 1pm, 7pm & 1am on Channel 6 . . . Pool open, parking lot closed. . . Roads through Zilker Park will be closed most of the weekend for the Austin City Limits Music Festival. However, an avid swimmer says you can swim at the pool if you can walk to it . . . UT professor to speak on election . . . UT Journalism Professor Robert Jensen will be the guest speaker at the First Unitarian Universalist Church, 4700 Grover, this Sunday at 11:30 a.m. The forum is entitled, "War, Politics, and the Election.” Jensen will share his views on what’s going on in Iraq, the current political situation and the upcoming November election. Jensen said his two greatest fears are "that Kerry will lose, or that Kerry will win.” For more information, call 452-6168 or visit the UUs’ web site at http://www.austinuu.org . . . Doggett makes the rounds … Three events honoring U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett will take place this week. On Sunday, from 4:30pm to 6pm Rex VanMiddlesworth and Diane Umstead will host a reception at their home, 1201 Claire Avenue. The following day, Lulu Flores and Scott Hendler will celebrate Doggett at their home, 1300 Alta Vista, from 5:30pm to 7pm. And on Tuesday, Stephen and Emilie Becker will hold a breakfast reception from 8-9am at their home, 1104 Belmont Parkway. RSVP by phone to Lauren at 912-9099, or e-mail your reply to lloyddoggett@sbcglobal.net.

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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