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Council may fund study of toll road finances

Monday, February 28, 2005 by

McCracken, Alvarez want alternatives to Phase 2 of toll plan

The City of Austin would fund a study of the financial aspects of CAMPO' s toll road plan if a resolution sponsored by Council Members Brewster McCracken and Raul Alvarez wins Council approval this week. The two Council Members plan to add the item to Thursday’s agenda today.

In Fact Daily that City Manager Toby Futrell has been negotiating with the consulting firm Public Financial Management (PFM) for an independent analysis of the financial viability of Phase 2 of the toll road program. Phase 2 includes US 183 South, SH 71 East, US 290 East, the “Y” at Oak Hill and SH 45 Southwest.

Their resolution states that the average rate for toll roads nationwide is 9 cents per mile but that the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA) “has recently revealed that the toll rate on US 290 West at Oak Hill will be 44 cents per mile and that the toll rate on as SH 71 from I- 35 to the airport will be 64 cents per mile.” The resolution goes on to recite the pressures put on the CAMPO board to approve tolling for all of the roads in Phase 2, noting that the CAMPO board will be reviewing the Phase 2 plan this spring as part of a review of the 2030 Plan.

Several of the items that the city’s expert would be asked to analyze are identical to what McCracken wanted to be analyzed by an independent panel. McCracken and Rep. Terry Keel (R-Austin) asked the CAMPO board to approve the panel at their last meeting. (See In Fact Daily, Feb. 15, 2005.) The board rejected creation of the panel on a vote of 8-14. Council Member Daryl Slusher and Mayor Will Wynn voted for the McCracken motion and Council Member Danny Thomas was absent from the meeting.

McCracken said he wants the report to be done by April 28. "The goal is in May to have a report from one of the nation's top public financial firms and a fully analyzed plan on how to build this system with far less tolling, " he said. "We’re going to look at whether you could use existing money and build the system differently." He said he was interested in "freeways being free but potentially adding a single managed lane," to what already exists.

“We're also in discussions with the Texas Transportation Institute to see if they would be able to assist the city in developing alternative plans. Obviously, a big component of this is figuring out what types of problems we have with the current plan. However, this effort is not about throwing stones or making statements. It's about taking serious steps to solve a problem, "McCracken said.

Alvarez said, "From my point of view, I think it's important we have an independent review of the plan and the financial information that supports the plan. We have seen a lot of the information that was provided was conflicting in different ways—that’s the fundamental issue to make sure we as a community have meaningful information to adequately evaluate the proposals involving toll roads, especially as we consider the adoption of the 2030 plan.” He said many of his constituents had raised concerns about the plan.

“I think this would be helpful to the public and the decision makers alike especially as we move toward the 2030 plan. The toll plan obviously has a very significant impact on city residents so it is incumbent upon us to make sure all the cards are on the table, " said Alvarez.

McCracken said, "In my discussions with the other Council members, I believe everybody supports it. "

The resolution as written would ask the experts to respond to the following questions and issues and present their findings to the City Council and City Manager:

1. How does the TxDOT/CTRMA Phase 2 toll plan compare with the plans submitted to the Texas Transportation Commission in 2004 by the other seven Texas metropolitan areas?

2. What approaches are other metro areas taking?

3. The information contained in TxDOT documents reflect that Travis County drivers will have to pay operation and maintenance costs for the three highways (US 183, SH 71 and US 290W) and that the roads will also generate net toll revenue. By tolling US 183, SH 71 and US 290W and thereby assuming the operation and maintenance costs for these highways and receiving access to toll revenues, will Travis County residents realize a net gain or loss?

This analysis should be performed from the perspective of tolling’s impact on Travis County and Travis County drivers—not from the perspective of the plan’s impact on the TxDOT budget.

4. Could the capacity in the Phase 2 Plan be built without tolling? Describe the options for the CAMPO TPB and the costs and benefits of each.

5. What alternative financing and traffic management models (such as high occupancy toll lanes and managed lanes) exist to build this system?

a. Which model does the most to reduce traffic congestion?

b. Which model has the best cost/benefit to Austin residents?

6. Analyze the ramifications and impact of the Phase 2 plan on Travis County, and in particular the ramifications of any loss of state highway funding and transfer of operations obligations to Travis County and Travis County residents.

7. How do the toll rates for the roads in the Phase 2 Plan compare to the toll rates for urban highways in cities across the U.S.?

8. How does Austin’s level of tolling of 50 percent of all highway lane miles compare to the rate of tolling in other American metropolitan areas?

9. The Phase 2 Plan charges tolls up to seven times higher than the national average. The tolled segments range from 2.33 miles to 4.5 miles. Each tolled segment has a free frontage road. In light of these facts, analyze the following: a. How realistic are the usage level assumptions in the toll feasibility studies? b. What cities and road comparisons exist to gauge the effect of charging these toll rates on demand for the roads? c. What levels of usage are most likely? d. How do tolls at these prices affect the projections in the toll feasibility studies?

Smart Housing project may be gated

The Austin City Council has approved a SMART Housing development in southeast Austin despite lingering uncertainty over whether the development will be built as a gated community. The builders of Shire’s Court, a 300-unit condominium complex planned for Metcalfe Road at Wickshire Lane, have promised to maintain pedestrian access but have not made a final decision about whether cars will be able to travel through the area without first passing through a gated security checkpoint.

While many apartment complexes, including those built under the SMART Housing program, have security gates, Council Member Brewster McCracken opposed the gate for the Shire’s Court development since it will be a single-family community. “It would be unusual to do a large development as a gated community,” he said. “If the purpose is to create integrated neighborhoods in this city, it does not sound like this proposal meets this goal.”

The company behind the project, Benchmark Development, is planning to extend Carlson Drive to connect with Metcalfe Road to provide some access through their site. “We made the public streets hook up that are already there,” said attorney Richard Suttle, who represented the developer. “It actually bisects the tract. There are five or six acres on one side, and about 20 on the other.”

McCracken, however, was still skeptical, since the company was not able to determine if that road would have gated access. “The road that is proposed here skirts the outskirts of this development,” McCracken said. “If it is to give the cars a way to cut through, it does achieve that, but I think we are looking at something different, which was more integration of the development with the neighborhood as opposed to creating a big walled-off community.”

Representatives of Benchmark had previously told the Council that while they would prefer not to gate the new community, they needed to have that option in order to address security concerns of the prospective new residents and surrounding homeowners (see In Fact Daily, Feb. 1, 2005). Under the city’s development rules, they are not required to make that decision on access until the site plan stage.

Having a gate for the condominium project would not be unusual, according to Stuart Hersh with the city’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Office. “What you will find in most of the multi-family developments over the past four or five years that we have been involved with…the gated security occurs literally outside the leasing office,” he said. “What they have proposed here is pretty conventional for the kind of mixed housing that we have been experiencing Although this feels like single-family housing, from a conceptual point of view it will function like multi-family. Instead of having individual streets with individual city meters, you will have a master meter and a series of connection points with sub-metering.”

The Council unanimously approved the zoning change from SF-3 and LO on the site to SF-6-CO on third reading. But that approval came with a request for the developers to preserve as much connectivity with the surrounding neighborhood as possible. “Like Council Member McCracken, I’m troubled by the gate issue,” said Council Member Daryl Slusher. “I would encourage the owners and developers to try to avoid that if at all possible.”

Mayor Wynn's statement on impending divorce

Mayor Will Wynn and his wife, Anne Elizabeth Wynn, announced Friday that they plan to divorce after 12 years of marriage. Although In Fact Daily does not usually report on such matters, the publisher agreed to publish the following statements at the request of the Wynns.

Their joint statement: “It is with sadness that we announce today that we have decided to end our marriage. Our parting is very amicable and based on continued mutual support and respect. Our greatest concern is, as always, for the well being of our two cherished daughters, of whom we intend to share joint custody. We ask our many friends in Austin to help us as we help our daughters through this family transition by respecting the private and personal nature of this change in our lives.”

Mrs. Wynn’s statement: “Will Wynn is a deeply principled, considerate, and decent person. He is also a great leader, and I will continue to support him in whatever way I can as he continues his public service.”

Mayor Wynn’s statement: “I’m grateful for the years I shared with Anne Elizabeth, and I look forward to our continued friendship. Her many talents are our community’s good fortune, and I remain supportive of all of her great works.”

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Curtis cleared . . . On Friday, the Assistant District Attorney looking into interactions between mayoral aide Matt Curtis and a petitioner from the Austin Toll Party announced that no charges would be forthcoming. Curtis told In Fact Daily, "I was always confident nothing would ever come of this because I knew I had done nothing wrong. Anyone who would describe a conversation with me as a haranguing has obviously never met my mother ". . . Today’s meetings . . . The Historic Landmark Commission has a heavy agenda tonight. They are scheduled to meet at 7pm in Room 325 of One Texas Center . . . The Design Commission will be reviewing proposals for Block 21, among other things. They are set to meet at 5:45pm in Room 500 of One Texas Center . . . The specially called meeting of the Zoning and Platting Commission has been cancelled . . . The Electric Utility Commission will meet at 6pm in the Town Lake Center Assembly Room . . . Walk to fight hunger . . . The Crop Walk returns to Austin for it’s annual city-wide walk event to help Austin and the world fight hunger one step at a time. The two-day walking event takes place next Saturday at 9:30am and Sunday at 1:45pm. at Roy Guerrero Colorado Park. Agencies that will benefit from the walk include Meals on Wheels and More, Capitol Area Food Bank, the Church Food Pantry, Faith Food Pantry, Trinity Center, Micha 6, and Sustainable Food Center. To become a Crop Walker, visit: www.CROPWALK.org

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