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TxDOT official changes tune on need for toll roads

Thursday, September 16, 2004 by

McCracken believes Simmons pressured to recant

The Texas Department of Transportation ( TxDOT) has turned up the heat on rebellious members of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization ( CAMPO) who want to pull down parts of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Plan.

In a letter sent Tuesday to CAMPO Chairman State Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, TxDOT Deputy Executive Director Steven Simmons said the Texas Transportation Commission has determined that in order to take full advantage of the Texas Mobility Fund, “a community must use the fund to establish revenue generating assets,” a.k.a. toll roads. He added, “Any deviations to the existing plan may jeopardize the funding level Central Texas could expect, and could delay several important projects included in the plan.”

Austin City Council Member Brewster McCracken tried unsuccessfully Monday to get the CAMPO board to set a hearing on leaving three roads out of the toll plan. McCracken said yesterday he believes the TxDOT letter was the result of comments by Simmons that appeared in Tuesday editions of the Austin American-Statesman, in which the state official appeared to leave the door open for CAMPO to reconsider some projects without risking its funding. McCracken believes those comments may have brought some heat down on Simmons from his superiors, spurring the written clarification.

Simmons said he was giving a reporter from the American-Statesman a “statewide viewpoint” on the issue, though he said local media coverage of the issue “has been fair.” He went on to lay out TxDOT’s position: “If we are to make any progress on reducing congestion in our state, our position on tolled assets must remain aggressive. Removing individual projects out of the Toll Road Implementation Plan could impact the financing system needed to accelerate all of the projects.”

Simmons’ letter appears to be aimed at several members of the CAMPO board who tried in vain Monday night to delay all or part of the 2025 Transportation Plan for further consideration. McCracken was one of the mutinous CAMPO members. His proposal to reconsider three elements of the plan approved on July 12 was voted down 16-8 after a long and rancorous debate. Other members of the local delegation backing a proposal to scrap the entire plan were Austin Council Member Daryl Slusher, D emocratic State Reps. Eddie Rodriguez and Elliott Naishtat, Republican State Reps. Terry Keel, Todd Baxter, and Jack Stick, and Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty. Except for McCracken, all of the above voted against the toll road plan during the July 12 vote.

McCracken said the letter was just another flip-flop by TxDOT on the issue. “In July, they told us we’d have to include every one of these funds or we’d lose our funding,” he said. “Three days ago, they said we could take out a bunch of these and keep all of our funding. Now, they are saying, ‘maybe’ if we take out these roads, we could lose some funding.” He called on the CAMPO board to “get clarity” on the issue.

Meanwhile, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority is pressing on with preparations to make the toll road system happen. The CTRMA’s Planning Committee met Wednesday and began discussing tolling policies. The agency will have to perform a balancing act to set toll rates sufficient to assure potential bond investors that they will be able to pay off their debt, and meet the letter of a CAMPO resolution by State Rep. Dawnna Dukes to set toll rates that take into account the social and economic factors of those using the system.

Planning Committee Chair Johanna Zmud says the RMA is under a tight time line in which it must study and set tolling policies. “We have some toll roads opening in a couple of years, which for us is a very short time period,” she said. “We need to develop policies on how our pricing will be done, if we will have exemptions for certain type of drivers, or ‘congestion pricing’ based on certain times of the day. We want to make sure our tolling policies meet the needs of Central Texas.”

RMA consultant Richard Ridings said the tolling policy must comply with state law and be in concert with TxDOT policies. The committee hopes to have a draft policy available for the RMA board meeting on September 29.

The CTRMA will also be sprucing up its image for a visit from the New York bond rating houses on October 11. The Authority will get the once-over from representatives of Moody’s and others to determine if its programs will generate the necessary revenue to repay bondholders, and if it is being operated in a fiscally responsible manner.

Airport lot fees increased to 4 percent

Although the City Council’s quick approval of next year’s budget illustrated a great deal of unity, Council members voted 4-3 on an amendment to lower fees the Aviation Department had proposed for two offsite airport parking operations. That vote means fees will be 4 percent of gross revenues during the next fiscal year—not the 10 percent of gross revenues requested by Aviation Director Jim Smith. Currently, the offsite parking operators pay 15 cents per car space rented per day, estimated at 2.75 percent of gross revenues.

Smith’s plan brought howls of protest from the operators and lobbyists who came to City Hall to explain their side of the issue. The Airport Advisory Commission recommended a gradual increase to 4 percent of gross revenues during the final two years of a five-year contract. ( See In Fact Daily, September 8, 2004.)The Council majority, led by Council Member Betty Dunkerley, voted to impose a fee of four percent for the 2005 Fiscal Year. In 2006, according to the motion, that fee would increase by three percent—but only if the parking operators have seen a 10 percent increase in their gross revenues. The following year, that amount would be increased by an additional two percent if the vendors’ revenues have risen by eight percent or more.

Mayor Will Wynn and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman discussed the fact that the Council cannot dictate the fees future Councils decide to charge. But the idea was to give parking lot operators some idea of what the Council may decide to do next year.

“I think Austin has been particularly hard hit in all the airport concessions both in and out of the airport because of the severe downturn in the technology sector of our economy,” Dunkerley said in introducing her amendment. “So, I think we are a little different from other Texas cities. I like the idea of tying future rate increases to growth in the gross revenue, but I think it’s time to take a look at what that gross revenue has to pay.”

Accountant Dunkerley explained first that gross revenue “is the amount that comes in before any deduction.” If a business experiences growth, that might necessitate hiring additional employees, which would raise costs. In addition, the city should take into account that inflation may occur, she said. That brought Dunkerley to her amendment, which reduced the fees for 2005-2007.

Joining Dunkerley in voting for the amendment were Wynn, Goodman and Council Member Brewster McCracken. Council Members Daryl Slusher, Raul Alvarez and Danny Thomas were opposed. Slusher and Alvarez expressed the opinion that the lots would not have the business without the airport and should be willing to pay the fees. After the vote, Wynn asked City Attorney David Smith whether he needed five votes on each of the amendments, or only on the overall budget with all the amendments. Smith said five votes were needed on the overall motion, not the amendments. But if the three opponents wanted to vote no on the main motion, they would have to vote three times. “Meaning,” said Goodman, “that we will be seeing each other again tomorrow, and perhaps the next day.” In case the import of that had not gotten through, she added, “In this room. At 10 o’clock,” provoking a roomful of laughter.

“Thank you Mayor Pro Tem for the advocacy,” Wynn joked. The Mayor’s comment led Slusher to say, “That is pretty persuasive,” bringing on even more laughter. At that point, no doubted remained about the final unanimous outcome.

Michael Whellan, attorney for Airport Fast Park on Highway 71, was clearly relieved to have the vote done. However, his client was “not happy,” he said. “We know we have to do a better job of educating the public and the Council of the overall nature of our tax burden—and show folks that the tax burden is greater than those imposed in other cities in Texas and throughout the nation. Right now, over 15 percent gross revenue is given to taxes and fees.”

The Aviation Department plans to draw upon $2.7 million in reserve funds for the FY 2004-05 budget. According to Smith, "On a cash-flow basis, we will be spending $2.7 million more than we will be taking in in revenue." Without turning to those funds for a one-time infusion, Smith said, the airport would be forced to drastically change the way it operates. The estimated cost of the budget amendment is around $97,000.

Pilot project to test outsourcing JP fines

Tight financial times mean looking for new sources of revenue, or at least finding a way to catch money slipping through the cracks. That’s the idea behind a pilot program approved by Travis County Commissioners on Tuesday to use a private firm to help collect fines and fees assessed by the county’s courts.

The project will take place in the Precinct 3 Justice of the Peace court. J.P. Melissa Goodwin told commissioners that the current backlog of warrants is costing the county untold thousands of dollars in uncollected fines and court fees. “This will give me a third option to resolve many of these cases,” she said. “It will allow me to get money due the county without burdening the jail or other agencies.”

Judge Goodwin says even when warrants are served, she often is asked to forego fines in lieu of time served. “One man was picked up at 10:30 at night and released at 2 a.m.” she said. “He owed three $200 fines, but if his sentence is reduced to time served, the county loses $600 plus the cost of his incarceration. Meanwhile, he only spends four hours in jail.” She says that case is typical of hundreds catalogued in her files.

The county will hire Gila Corporation, doing business as Municipal Services Bureau, to collect Precinct 3 fines that are not paid promptly. An MSB spokeswoman told commissioners that the firm would take on the precinct’s entire backlog and begin skip-trace procedures on all outstanding fines and fees.

The program begins October 1, and commissioners will receive monthly progress reports on its effectiveness. If it is successful, commissioners could expand it to cover all outstanding fines and fees in the county. MSB would return all revenues it recovers back to the county, then charge its fees.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who asked Goodwin to consider the program, says MSB would get due consideration if the program is expanded. However, other companies would be invited to take part in a competitive bidding process.

Debate at RECA today . . . RECA is hosting a sold-out debate performance by State Rep. Mike Krusee and commuter rail opponent Jim Skaggs at noon today at the Four Seasons Hotel ballroom. Capital Metro’s commuter rail proposal will be on the ballot in November, and Skaggs is moving from one forum to another to explain the opposition’s viewpoint . . . Special Rainey Street meeting . . . The Zoning and Platting Commission will hold a special called meeting at 6pm tonight, but they should adjourn quickly. Commission Chair Betty Baker said last night that she would move to postpone consideration of the ZAP recommendation for zoning in the Rainey Street neighborhood. She wants to hear recommendations from the Historic Landmark Commission, as well as others. The HLC put off making its recommendations until September 27 after hearing a staff presentation Monday night. Baker said she would ask that Rainey Street be put on the October 5 ZAP agenda . . . Big donors sweeten Long Center coffers . . . Long Center leaders say decisions by two Austin couples to substantially increase prior pledges have sparked fund-raising success for the project over the past six weeks. New gifts from August 1 through mid-September totaled nearly $1 million. Board Chair Joe R. Long said the board is “thrilled” by the decision of Sarah Butler and Dr. Ernest Butler to double their support of the Long Center to a total of $1 million. “The Butlers have been mainstays of the arts in Austin for years, and their renewed endorsement at this important stage confirms the value of our project,” Long said. Executive Director Cliff Redd said a second gift involved a 10-fold increase—from $25,000 to $250,000—of a prior contribution by Nancy Inman, a member of the organization’s board of trustees, and her husband, retired Admiral Bob R. Inman. Other notable recent gifts include a $100,000 contribution from Dr. Nona Niland of Austin through her Niland Foundation. Niland noted that the Long Center’s $5 million Community Challenge Fund was instrumental in her decision to contribute. The Butler, Inman and Niland contributions, as well as others, are being matched one-for-one from the challenge fund created by a group of Long Center donors earlier this year. That group includes Gail and Jeff Kodosky, who made a second $2 million pledge, and Claudette and David Hartman, who pledged $1 million to match contributions from other donors. Nearly 2,300 donors have contributed more than 70 percent of the total funds needed to build the Long Center project. Construction is scheduled to begin in the fall of this year, with grand opening scheduled for fall of 2007.

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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