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PAC forms to pass commuter rail plan

Thursday, September 9, 2004 by

Watson, Krusee, others say they'll fight for starter rail line

Supporters of Capital Metro's commuter rail proposal for voters’ consideration on the November 2 ballot kicked off their campaign efforts on Wednesday with a rally outside the Austin Convention Center. The newly-formed political action committee, called The Right Track, is made up of elected officials, downtown business leaders, and neighborhood activists who hope that voters will approve commuter service between Leander and the Convention Center.

"We're talking about urban commuter rail operating on existing track providing new ways to connect,”," said former Mayor Kirk Watson, the PAC’s chairman. "It's a first step in a long-term transit vision for Central Texas. With commuter rail, we'll provide new transportation choices for people who live and work here." Joining Watson was a host of other elected officials, including Travis County Commissioners Karen Sonleitner and Margaret Gomez, State Representatives Elliott Naishtat and Eddie Rodriguez, Mayor Will Wynn, and Council Member Daryl Slusher.

"Our citizen surveys continually point to traffic as their issue," said Mayor Wynn. "Capital Metro's proposal, that I am very proud to support, is an indispensable part of how we're going to deal with Austin's traffic crisis."

Williamson County is also represented in the group. State Representative Mike Krusee, chair of the House Transportation Committee, stood with the rail supporters. "If we've learned anything in the last ten years, it's that our transportation problems and our environmental problems are regional ones, not local ones," he said. "We can't solve the problem alone in Williamson County. We need to be partners with Austin." Krusee emphasized that the plan put before the voters by the Capital Metro Board was fiscally responsible and could help improve the city's traffic. "Conservatives are always saying, 'We're not against mass transit, we just want it done in a sensible and efficient way.’ You cannot ask for a more efficient and sensible program than this one," he said.

In addition to elected officials past and present, the PAC also includes business groups and neighborhood activists. The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, the Real Estate Council of Austin, and the Downtown Austin Alliance have all endorsed the commuter rail proposal. Cycling activist Eric Anderson was present at the campaign kick-off, as were Robin Rather, Lori C. Renteria, former Council Member Charles Urdy, and Planning Commissioner Cid Galindo.

With less than two months to go before Election Day, the campaigns both for and against the commuter rail proposal will not have as much time or as much money as the campaigns surrounding the light rail vote in 2000. But supporters pledged to maintain a high level of visibility between now and November 2. "We're going to start getting the message out," promised Watson. "The message is already out that this is a first step in a regional transportation vision. You will see us get that message out in ways that are traditional with regard to campaigns, and perhaps some untraditional ways."

On the other side of town, some South Congress Avenue merchants are still opposed to Capital Metro’s plans. Rob Lippincott, owner of Güero’s Taco Bar, said the Save South Congress Association had voted to oppose commuter rail, just as they opposed light rail four years ago. He hastened to add, “I’m a virtual leader of a virtual association that just took a virtual vote.” The SSCA is quite disorganized, Lippincott noted, and does not have dues-paying members. “There’s never more than 10 to 15 people at our meetings,” he said. However, former Council member and rail foe Max Nofziger attended yesterday’s SSCA meeting and explained why the group should oppose the new plan, Lippincott added. A majority of those in attendance approved a resolution against the plan.

Lippincott articulated his own reasons for opposing commuter rail, which would run from Leander to the Convention Center: “I would be scared that giving this vote would allow them to do whatever they want.” Furthermore, he asserted, the plan is not cost efficient, and would not reduce pollution or congestion.

The SSCA’s situation has changed considerably since 2000. The nearly defunct organization has no money; last weekend’s Celebrate South Austin festival was a bust, financially, for Lippincott and other organizers, he said. However, those who helped with parking during the festival —the Texas School for the Deaf, the Congress Avenue Baptist Church, and the Iglesia de Cristo—did make money. So did the Sertoma Club, which assisted with beer sales and sold sausages and raffle tickets, Lippincott said.

Lawyer says city rules must be equal for all historic structures

The reconstituted Historic Preservation Task Force has abandoned its commitment to grandfathering tax abatements for buildings previously designated historic, leaving the committee the question of how to reconfigure abatements equitably without depleting the city’s tax revenues.

One of the task force's strongest initial recommendations was to grandfather existing historical exemptions. Last night, Assistant City Attorney David Lloyd presented the group with the city's rationale for rejecting the concept of grandfathering: the city Law Department, he said, believes that the requirement for uniform and equal taxation set forth in the Texas Constitution prohibits the city from providing different levels of taxation based on ownership.

Task force members did raise some questions about how that concept could be applied in light of public improvement districts ( PIDs), in which certain properties are singled out to pay higher tax rates in order to pay for improvements. Lloyd said the law does make exceptions for PIDs under a subsection of a statute that also allows the state—as well as local jurisdictions—to grant exemptions based on properties that are designated historic "in the manner provided by law." The manner provided by law suggests a "reasonable classification" that is not arbitrary or capricious.

All case law points to the property’s attribute, rather than the attributes of the owner, in setting those classifications, Lloyd said. The City of Austin has created two classifications: residential properties, and "other," or income-bearing properties. But legally, rights should run with the land; they don't attach to the owner, Lloyd said.

Under current regulations, abatements for owner-occupied residences are greater than for commercial structures.

During its last meeting, task force members discussed the possibility of abandoning the grandfathering of historic tax abatements. Group members are still open to considering how to make the tax abatement fairer, given that the current abatements are off the table. They also are considering whether to impose a fee on applications for historic designation.

That fee could be as little as $25, given that some tax abatements on historic buildings are less than $100.

The task force still has work to do between now and Oct. 12, when, by Council mandate, the group is unofficially finished with its business. A public hearing for consideration of any revisions to the historic preservation ordinance is scheduled for Oct. 4. Invitees will include historic property owners, as well as other interested groups.

ACTV protests . . . The Austin Music Commission and the Telecommunications Commission held a joint meeting last night to discuss the proposal to shift some Austin Music Network programming to ACTV. About 150 ACTV producers and fans packed Wednesday night's meeting at One Texas Center to decry the move as an unconstitutional. "Russia isn't as bad as this right now," shouted Alex Jones, a syndicated radio host who also has an ACTV show. "This is out of control. We're going to fight it! What this is…is a corporate takeover." The meeting had not ended as of press time; tune in for tomorrow’s edition to learn more . . . Meetings . . . The Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District board will meet at 6pm tonight at the district offices, located at 1124 Regal Row. The board will consider whether to enact new rules to ensure that the aquifer has a sustainable yield of water in the future . . . The City Council is not scheduled to meet today, but has set three meetings for next week — Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, all at 10am in Room 325 of One Texas Center — in case they need to go three rounds to reach agreement on the city budget. With little to fight about, the Council should be done before Wednesday . . . CAMPO is a different story . . . Council Member Brewster McCracken said last night that he has moved to put an item on next Monday’s agenda, as he has indicated previously. McCracken wants the CAMPO board to amend its previous toll road vote to remove any road from the plan that has already been paid for through tax dollars. He said he has talked with more than half of the board’s members, and has left messages for all those he has not been able to reach, in an attempt to elicit support for his proposal. McCracken’s plan does not go far enough for Council Member Daryl Slusher or State Rep. Terry Keel, among others, who originally voted against the toll road plan and would like to rescind it altogether.. McCracken said he does not favor that approach but that he would also be happy to allow the Central Texas RMA to take the roads out of the plan—but they need to act soon . . . The CAMPO staff, recognizing that they will have another large group of interested citizens attending Monday’s 6pm meeting, has moved the gathering to the LBJ Library Auditorium, which offers more seating.

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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