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Austin-SA rail chief sees progress in UP negotiations

Monday, March 7, 2005 by

Commuter lines seeking federal funds

Far less controversial than its commuting cousins, the planned Austin-San Antonio commuter rail line is taking center stage in a series of meetings this week around Central Texas.

The Austin-San Antonio Intermunicipal Commuter Rail District’s commuter rail line will go to the Federal Transit Agency the same time as Capital Metro’s Leander rail line. The line, which would stretch from Georgetown to San Antonio and open by 2009, could cost $300 million at its launch and up to $600 million at its full implementation.

The plan is contingent upon moving Union Pacific off its current tracks and onto an alternate route. Sid Covington, chair of the commuter rail district board, said the board is making progress in its negotiations with UP and could have a final answer this spring.

“We have a dialogue going,” Covington said at a public hearing at the Burger Center on Saturday morning. “I think it’s been very positive for both sides, and Union Pacific has been very cooperative. I’m hoping we’ll have an agreement soon.”

A second Austin hearing is scheduled for Thursday at Town Lake Center, 721 Barton Springs. An open house is scheduled for 6:30pm with a meeting at 7pm. For more information, visit the rail district’s website at

The Austin-San Antonio route, as it is now planned, would have 14 stops along its line in order to coordinate with current projects by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, Capital Metro and Via in San Antonio, Covington said. For instance, the lines for the Leander and ASA line would cross near McNeil Road. A joint station may be impossible because of the cost, but the goal would be to have some way for commuters to “cross over” from one platform to the other, so that someone from Leander could get onto the train and get off in Buda, Kyle or even San Antonio.

On the south side of Austin, the commuter rail line will tie into the transit-oriented development that Capital Metro is proposing for its rapid bus line. Both stops would be near the location of the proposed Austin Community College-South Austin.

Other stops will include Braker Lane, near The Domain, plus 35th Street at MoPac, Downtown Austin, Kyle, Buda, New Braunfels and Downtown San Antonio. Ultimately, the goal is to put a multi-modal station for bus and rail at the Seaholm site.

The deal makes sense for Union Pacific as well as the commuter rail district, Covington said. Rerouting UP off of MoPac and onto State Highway 130 and other existing UP lines that go from Bastrop to Taylor provide more safety and greater capacity for freight rail, Covington said. It would also avoid the sharp turn that the Union Pacific rail cars have to make at Seaholm, which can often be a problem for freight, Covington said.

Covington calls the Austin-San Antonio rail line just one more piece in the multi-modal puzzle for Central Texas. Adding freight capacity moves trucks off I-35. It gives commuters one more choice for transportation. And it will ultimately connect with the Leander rail line for a more complete rail system.

One goal of the commuter rail line is to beat the current travel time between Austin and San Antonio, which is roughly 1 hour and 40 minutes during peak travel time. Covington said that is the time the commuter rail intends to beat. Trains are likely to run on the half-hour during the rush hours and hourly during the day. Once demand builds, it’s likely that more direct express routes will be added to the commuter rail schedule.

Transportation a major interest for Williamson

Polite crowd asks questions, hears plans for future

Williamson County residents met last week with local, county and state officials to get an update on mobility issues in the area, and though toll roads were on the agenda, there was almost none of the rancor heard in similar meetings in the Austin area.

An overflow crowd of more than 300 people jammed into the Round Rock Public Library for the two-hour meeting organized by Williamson County Commissioner Lisa Birkman. Commissioner Frankie Limmer and Round Rock Mayor Lyle Maxwell joined Birkman and officials from the Texas Department of Transportation to discuss current and planned road projects.

Maxwell told the crowd that Williamson County faces unique mobility challenges. “We are the second fastest growing county in the state, and one of the fastest in the nation,” he said. “We have had to move quickly and creatively to keep up with the population.”

He said local officials have worked together over the past few years to leverage local transportation dollars into additional state and federal dollars to get major projects off the ground. “We passed a $350 million bond issue in Williamson County several years ago, and have—with the cooperation of local, county and state officials—been able to leverage infrastructure projects like State Highway 45, North Loop 1 and State Highway 130 that we could not have otherwise,” Maxwell said.

In addition to updating those attending on the major highway projects, transportation officials looked at smaller, but significant projects designed to transform many of the county’s “small town” roads into major arterials that can handle higher volumes of traffic.

Michael Aulick, executive director of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, outlined how the Central Texas 2030 Mobility Plan affects the county, and showed maps outlining population projections for the next 25 years. Major projects approved by CAMPO and under construction by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority include SH 130 from north of Georgetown to southeastern Travis County, SH 45 from SH 130 to US 183, and North Loop 1 from HSH 45 to Parmer Lane. Construction is set to begin soon on US 183A from SH 45 north to the San Gabriel River. All will be toll roads.

Mark Jones with TxDOT pointed out that several smaller road projects in the county have also been completed or are under construction, particularly along critical roads such as RM 620 and US 79, where the incidence of fatal accidents has been growing due to increased traffic volume. Other major safety improvements are planned at Westinghouse Road near I-35 and FM 685 near Hutto.

Officials answered written questions submitted by audience members, most of which related to problems at a particular intersection or the timeline for a project’s completion. Two members of the Austin Toll Party were in the audience and submitted questions on toll roads, but did not disrupt the meeting.

Birkman said she was surprised at the number of people who showed up. “We had a great turnout here tonight,” she said, “more than we were expecting. I think it shows just how interested people in this area are in transportation issues. I hope we can have more of these.”

Limmer—who has only been on the CAMPO board for a single, albeit raucous meeting—said he was happy that it was a polite crowd. “I’m glad this didn’t turn into an Austin-style meeting,” he quipped. “They get pretty rowdy down there.”

Notes from the campaign trail

Candidates talk about toll roads, economic development funds

Candidates for Austin City Council laid out their positions on toll roads and economic development at last week's candidate forum sponsored by the Oak Hill Association of Neighborhoods. The candidates faced a wide range of questions during the two-hour meeting at the Regents School of Austin, including several dealing withproblems of the surrounding neighborhood.

While the candidates did not face questions specifically about the toll road plan adopted by CAMPO, several chose to use either their opening statements or other questions to share their stance on the issue. "I'll come right out and say I'm against the toll road plan. I think there are better ways to upgrade transportation in the Austin area," said Place 3 candidate Wes Benedict, a member of the Austin Toll Party. "Toll roads cost $10 million per lane mile, while our arterial roads cost $1 million per lane mile. We ought to upgrade those." Margot Clarke, also running in Place 3, also registered her displeasure with toll roads. "On the subject of toll roads, I want to say that I oppose the current plan, and I'm the only candidate in this race that has refused to take money from the toll road lobby," she said.

Some of the candidates did not choose to address the issue, but those that did were unanimous in their opposition. "As for the toll roads, we couldn't just try one toll road, I guess, to give it a shot. We had to bombard everybody. I'm against the toll road plan as it is," said Place 1 candidate Steve Adams.

While some candidates are making their stance on the toll road issue a focus of their campaign, there's no guarantee any of the winners of this May's election will ever be able to cast a vote on the plan. The City of Austin does have four representatives on CAMPO's Transportation Policy Board, which are currently Mayor Will Wynn, Place 1 Council Member Daryl Slusher, Place 5 Council Member Brewster McCracken, and Place 6 Council Member Danny Thomas. Place 1 on the Council is up for grabs this spring, since Slusher is not seeking re-election, but the winner of his seat will not necessarily be chosen to represent the city on the CAMPO board.

All Council Members will face decisions on economic development. Debate panelist George Cofer with the Hill Country Conservancy asked candidates how they would vote when faced with a choice of allowing a potential major employer to pay the city mitigation funds to locate over the Edwards Aquifer or providing incentives to bring the business into the Desired Development Zone. "I would not support helping abet a major employer to locate over the aquifer. I would consider any solution available to encourage this hypothetical large corporation to move off the aquifer," said Place 1 Candidate Lee Leffingwell. "If it was impossible to induce them to move to the Desired Development Zone away from the environmentally sensitive area, I think we should request mitigation sufficient to buy significantly more land over the aquifer so that we could definitely show that the end result would be better for the environment than what could otherwise be achieved."

Leffingwell's willingness to at least consider incentives in those circumstances as outlined under the Council's existing policy separated him from other candidates in Place 1. "I, like everybody else, am philosophically opposed to tax incentives. However, in the real world, competition for these jobs out there is fierce. So, I would not entirely rule it out," he said. "I would be very reluctant to grant tax incentives." Place 1 Candidate Steve Adams, however, was very much against any incentives for major employers. "I'm currently a private contractor and small business owner. We've got to get a hold of what we're doing to small businesses. We are permitting them to death, we are regulating them to death," he said. "Eighty percent of the businesses here in Austin are small businesses. Yet every time we turn around we offer a subsidy to a big company to come to Austin.

Also running in Place 1, political novice James Paine had some of the more flamboyant comments of the evening. He chose to address broad themes instead of dealing with specific issues related to municipal government. "I've just become a little bit upset with all the money interests that are controlling our government and our lives. And I'm not so much accusing the city of any of this," he said. "But it seems that the white collar population has been basically destroying America. They've been making money the issue. They've been taxing people to death; they've been giving them bogus drugs; somebody's got to get in there and put it to these people."

While Paine did not have a specific proposal for how the City of Austin could deal with those issues, he did have a suggestion for handling the region's projected population growth and resulting traffic problems. "I think there's another issue here, things like maybe controlling our breeding, though nobody wants to talk about that," he said. "And if you don't build new houses, nobody's going to come here, so that would be a case of you just restrict building permits. It seems like a very simple answer. You know, if I don't wear my swimming shorts, I don't go swimming." Paine also bucked the long-standing trend among candidates for any office by calling for higher taxes. "We need to start thinking about taxing the hell out of the rich," he said. "The people that have the money need to start coughing it up, man."

In the Place 3 race, candidates were presented with several questions concerning redevelopment at the " Y" at Oak Hill. Audience members were concerned with the impacts of proposals by TxDOT and CAMPO, along with the restrictions imposed by the City of Austin's SOS Ordinance and proposed design guidelines for commercial development. One audience questioner opined that the city's current regulations would make it "economically impossible" for the intersection to redevelop.

Place 3 Candidate Mandy Dealey urged residents to make their concerns known to local and state officials. "It's my understanding that you can go back to CAMPO…I suggest working with them to see if we can't work out something that really does suit the community better," she said. "I am not completely familiar with what CAMPO has proposed for the 'Y'…but what I think is really important is for the community to come together and have one voice."

Fellow Place 3 Candidate Jennifer Kim sympathized with the residents' frustrations at strict development regulations, and offered some possible ways to preserve the environment and allow the area to redevelop. "We need to impress upon TxDOT that this 'Y' is not just a way to move cars, but it's actually a vibrant part of the economy here. There are a lot of businesses that need access to their customers, they need to have a visible location, they need affordable rents," she said. "There are ways that we can look at maybe our height restrictions, also looking at variable impervious cover so we can have some clustering so that we can have more dense developments but preserving open space…and just making sure we have walkable neighborhoods. But definitely we'll have to work with TxDOT because as I see it this plan is not really conducive to the type of development this area wants to see."

Today is the last day for candidates to file for a spot on the May 7 ballot.

District may televise only half of meetings

It doesn’t get quite the same ratings as “ER” or “CSI,” but the weekly cablecast version of the Travis County Hospital District Board of Managers meeting does have its loyal viewers. However, fans of the board’s televised deliberations may have to start catching the action in person if the board decides to hold future meetings in a different location.

Starting last summer, the board began meeting in the Travis County Commissioners Court Chambers in the Granger Building at 314 W. 11th Street. As a part of an interposal agreement with the county, district meetings held there have been televised on Travis County Television, Cable Channel 17. However, the agreement states that beginning this month the county will only cover the cost of televising one meeting a month, with the district getting a bill for staff time and other expenses for any additional meetings. The county’s media department estimates that expenses for a meeting run between $330 and $390 per meeting

At an earlier meeting, Manager Donald Patrick said after mentioning that meetings might be moved, he had received a large number of calls and emails requesting that they continue to have the meetings televised.

The district board studied those options last week, weighing the cost of paying for the video facilities against moving some meetings to a different, less expensive location. “It’s nice to have the lights and the cameras,” said Manager Tom Young, “but $14,000 a year is a lot to pay just for meetings. We could meet at the Cesar Chavez Building for a lot less and save money.”

Part of what the district inherited from the City of Austin is a building at 1111 E. Cesar Chavez St., which currently houses several of the city’s health-related programs and will eventually be the headquarters for the Hospital District. There is sufficient space for the board to hold a meeting there, but it currently has no facilities for a video or audio broadcast of the meetings. The district is purchasing equipment to make an audio recording of meetings at the Cesar Chavez location.

The discussion also brought up the subject of just how often the board should meet. In an effort to try and get a handle on the massive indigent health care system in Travis County, the board has held weekly meetings since last fall.

“It has been my experience that we are still needing to take action on some items every week,” said Chair Clarke Heidrick., “but maybe we’re reaching the point where its time to question the need for a weekly meeting.”

Trish Young, who will take over as the district’s executive director in a few weeks, told the board she was comfortable with them cutting back to twice a month, beginning in April. “I think with a little organization and planning, we can take care of everything with fewer meetings,” she said. “It might even spur more public participation in the meetings if more people attend in person.”

Manager Dr. Tom Coopwood agreed. “We can always call an extra meeting if we need to act on something,” he said.

The board took no official action, but Heidrick instructed interim director Jim Collins to post meetings at Commissioners’ chambers for this week and March 24. He said the board would consider taking official action this Thursday to begin meeting once a month in the county facility and once in the Cesar Chavez building, starting in April.

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Today’s meetings . . . Two of today’s meetings begin at 5:30pm; the Zoning and Platting Commission task force on commercial and retail design standards will meet in Room 523 of One Texas Center. Members of the Parks and Recreation Board will meet finalists for Deputy Director and Assistant Director of the department. Joining them will be members of the Urban Forestry Board, the Mexican American Cultural Center Board and the Renaissance Market Board. They will be meeting at the PARD Board Room at 200 South Lamar. At 6pm the Music Commission will meet in Room 1101 of City Hall to discuss music-related ventures proposed for Block 21 and Seaholm . . . Appointees . . . Adrianna McWilliams will be joining the Arts Commission. The Council appointed her by consensus last week. Tommy Hodihn, also appointed by consensus, will join the Asian American Resource Center Advisory Board. Council Member Betty Dunkerley appointed Ruben Aleman to the Electrical Board.

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