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McCracken attack on toll roads derailed

Tuesday, January 25, 2005 by

CAMPO votes to remove toll from William Cannon Bridge

Council Member Brewster McCracken squared off with members of the Texas Department of Transportation and Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority on Monday night, saying the two agencies hid full funding information from members of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Transportation Policy Board.

In a news conference outside the CAMPO meeting, McCracken presented documents that he says indicate that all four highways at issue in the CTRMA’s toll plan were more fully funded with taxpayer dollars than presented to the board last year. McCracken said the additional funding was noted in Texas Department of Transportation documents produced last summer that were labeled “confidential” and not presented to local leaders.

District Engineer Bob Daigh said the documents were produced by his office and turned over to the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority as a “wish list” of proposed projects for the regional toll road plan. The list was posted last summer on the CTRMA website with the “confidential” label still visible on the documents.

McCracken is not certain that’s the full story. In an emergency item added to last night’s agenda, McCracken asked for a hearing on the specifics of funding the Texas Department of Transportation has made available to the Central Texas region. When asked whether Daigh’s claim that the roads were never fully funded might be true, McCracken said he wasn’t sure, but he was sure that the answer should be investigated.

“There’s one thing we know for a fact,” McCracken said during his pre-meeting press conference. “These documents contain contradictory information about whether these roads are fully funded. But TxDOT’s own maps included in the confidential documents do reflect that the roads were funded. It is contradictory and unclear whether they were fully funded. That’s one of the things we want an answer on.”

McCracken’s announcement almost overshadowed the other big event of last night’s meeting, which was the removal of the William Cannon overpass on Loop 1 (MoPac) from the Central Texas toll road plan. The decision was passed on two motions. The first, by Chair Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos (D-Austin) stripped the project from the toll road plan. The second, offered by Mayor Will Wynn, proposed that managed lanes be instituted north of the Colorado River to State Highway 45, simply because managed lanes south of the Colorado River/Cesar Chavez exit were considered infeasible. Managed lanes could include tolls.

Council Member Daryl Slusher offered a friendly amendment that would protect the right-of-way from encroachment, anticipating Austin’s possible long-range rail plans.

Rep. Terry Keel (R-Austin) joined McCracken in his motion for a review of TxDOT funding but was not at the meeting last night. Chief of Staff Shyra Darr, who served as Keel’s proxy to the Transportation Policy Board, said Keel was detained at the Capitol last night on legislative matters. McCracken and Keel produced an eight-page document that offered a possible resolution and asked a series of detailed questions about funding sources, funding in other major metropolitan areas and impact of lost funding to Travis County if the region took over the maintenance of toll roads.

Because of the way McCracken drafted his emergency agenda item, the motion agreed to last night, approved on a voice vote, was to call a hearing on the funding issue next month. After the meeting, Executive Director Michael Aulick said he would do his best to get as many of the questions listed in an eight-page document answered before the next meeting in three weeks. Aulick said he would fully investigate any question about confidential documents but was unaware of any “hidden funding” sources.

Tracking road funding is confusing. As Aulick explained, CAMPO operates on a 10-year plan. Only the first three years of that plan, however, actually have “hard funding.” Plans and projects beyond that scope are just estimates. Daigh thinks critics might have seen proposed toll road projects in documents and considered them funded.

McCracken raised a second issue of whether the Austin region was losing out in state funding by choosing to build its own toll roads. During the meeting, he asked whether toll roads would be in the state’s system of maintenance or out of the state’s system of maintenance, meaning it would be the CTRMA’s responsibility to maintain the roads.

At the meeting, Daigh said TxDOT determined maintenance funding on a case-by-case basis. In a fuller explanation outside the meeting, Daigh said the state does intend to provide maintenance support to regions that build toll roads. Additional toll road miles will be included in the formula to calculate maintenance dollars, which also takes into account the condition of the roads across the state.

Daigh said the Central Texas region, which has an estimated $18 billion in road needs, would not be losing maintenance funding. Already, state dollars have provided an extra $1 billion in construction Central Texas would not have otherwise seen. The revenue from those toll roads also will be plowed back into Central Texas transportation.

McCracken could bring his resolution for further study back to the Transportation Policy Board in March if he is not satisfied with the answers he hears next month. Last night, McCracken said no other city in the state had committed to a toll road plan to the extent and breadth that Austin had during the adoption of the Central Texas toll plan.

“To be responsible public servants, we need to go back and look at the effect of this plan and make sure that as we consider the next (2030) Plan in April that we’ve done the right thing for the people of Austin,” McCracken said.

Panel urges changes for dealing with mental health problems

After six months of work, Austin Mayor Will Wynn's Mental Health Task Force has targeted 39 areas that need improvement for Austin to consider itself a "mentally healthy" community. The task force also outlined a timetable for those improvements, ranging from two years to six years, and recommended the formation of a new committee to follow up to make sure those recommendations are put in place.

The task force was assembled after an Austin police officer shot Sophia King, a woman with a history of mental illness. He was responding to a call that King was attacking a woman.. "It stemmed from a concern in Austin about the tragedy of Sophia King, and the fact that there were several groups that should have been involved but for some reason were not," said task force Co-Chair Wilhelmina Delco. "It was an effort to bring all of them together."

The task force formed four separate subcommittees to deal with issues related to the criminal justice system, short- and long-term treatment recommendations, housing, and education and community awareness. Two of those groups cited the lack of beds for emergency psychiatric patients as a significant problem. "We'd like to see 24-hour psychiatric emergency beds in our local hospital," said Raman Gill with the Texas Appleseed, who worked on the criminal justice committee.

The committee studying short- and long-term care needs had a similar finding. "Our group thought that the need for a psychiatric emergency center was critical," said Charlotte Brooks with MHRM. "When we look at our continuum of care in mental health, what we see is that we have a gaping hole because we do not have crisis stabilization services, and that's essentially what this is. We cannot adequately address people in crisis until they have a place to go and they can get there in a timely manner."

Mayor Wynn noted that the issue is not a new one for those studying mental health treatment in Central Texas. The recommendation from two of the committees, he said, "doesn't surprise me at all. Ultimately the genesis of the debate, then the election on and creation of the Travis County Hospital District was that issue."

In addition to emergency psychiatric beds, the committee on criminal justice is also urging steps to steer patients away from jail or prison. "We'd like to see a pre-booking system for adults and juveniles, which would be a system that helps us keep folks with mental health issues out of the criminal justice system in the first place," said Gill, naming that as one of the criminal justice committee's top priorities. "There are not that many resources for diversion, for keeping people out of the justice system."

In order to help ensure that the recommendations of the report are acted upon, officials with Austin/Travis County MHMR have agreed to adopt a Monitoring Committee as suggested in the report. "The committee will collect the names of interested volunteers over the next 30 days and make recommendations to the mayor, who will then make recommendations to the MHMR board, which will approve the formal Monitoring Committee," said Acting Assistant City Manager Michael McDonald. That Monitoring Committee could be in place for up to five years.

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved Clarke campaign kick-off tonight . . . Place 3 City Council candidate Margot Clarke will kick off her campaign with a party from 5:30 to 7pm at Jovita’s, 1619 South First St.. . . Mayor speaking . . . Mayor Will Wynn will give his State of the City address to the crowd at today’s RECA luncheon at the Four Seasons. It might be sold out, so call ahead if you don’t have a reservation . . . A fitting farewell . . . Members of the CAMPO Transportation Policy Board gave Williamson County Commissioner Greg Boatright a standing ovation for his years of service to the board last night. Boatright, vice chair of the board, is ready to move on and given up his seat after nine years. At one point during last night’s meeting after a rather tedious hour of discussion over a single vote, Boatright joked, “Is it any wonder why I’m leaving the board?” He had taken the gavel while Chair Gonzalo Barrientos made a motion. . . Commissioners looking at fire code . . . Last week, Commissioner Gerald Daugherty asked for a one-week delay on a vote for Travis County’s adoption of the international fire code. Daugherty said he was supportive of the shift but constituents had approached him for reassurance on the costs of the shift. Commissioner Karen Sonleitner said the county is the exception to its adoption especially in terms of its impact on the cost of fire insurance. Daugherty said he would take no more than one week to get the fire chief together with constituents to answer questions on the fire code change. The code, when adopted, would apply to new commercial construction . . . Today’s meetings . . . The City Council Audit and Finance Committee is scheduled to meet at 10am at City Hall, Room 1101 . . . The City Council Healthcare Subcommittee will meet at 3:30pm at City Hall, room 1101 . . . The Planning Commission will meet at 6pm in Council Chambers at City Hall. They will discuss the transit-oriented development zoning category and cases from the Old West Austin neighborhood . . . The Planning Commission’s codes and ordinances committee is scheduled to meet at 5pm in Room 2003 of City Hall to talk about commercial design standards . . . The Parks and Recreation Board will meet at 6:30pm in the board room of the Parks Department building at 200 South Lamar . . . TCEQ seeking comment on Edwards Aquifer rules . . . The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is seeking comments on a new draft of the technical publication on best management practices in the Edwards Aquifer region. The commission will hold two hearings on the matter next week, one in San Antonio and one in Austin. The Austin meeting is from 9am to noon on Thursday, February 3rd at the TCEQ headquarters, Building E, Room 201S, 12100 Park 35 Circle. Michael Barrett of the Center for Research and Water Resources at the UT Bureau of Engineering Research updated the manual. Those who are unable to attend the meetings may forward their comments to by 5pm on February 11. . . . Water quality project . . . About two dozen people taking part in the Regional Water Quality Planning Project met in Oak Hill last night to go over their differences on issues relating to proposed standards for impervious cover, buffers for creeks and streams, and whether a higher value should be placed on mitigation land over the Contributing Zone or the Recharge Zone of the Edwards Aquifer. The group will meet again on Wednesday at the Oak Hill United Methodist Church.

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