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Austin Toll Party endorses Walker, Clarke, Benedict

Monday, March 21, 2005 by

As part of an effort to expand the focus and reach of their organization, leaders of the Austin Toll Party last week announced endorsements in the May 7 City Council election. While the primary factor in the group’s decision on candidate endorsements was their stance on toll roads, Austin Toll Party organizer Sal Costello said the candidates they selected would also be committed to reforming the city’s petition process for citizen initiatives and promoting affordability.

The group is backing Case Walker in Place 1, Margot Clarke in Place 3, and Wes Benedict in Place 4. “This is sort of a test. We’re really gearing up for next year, but we wanted to see what we could do now,” said Costello. “We have a lot of active volunteers, and these folks will go to the polls and push these three candidates. We are very interested in doing whatever we can to help these candidates.”

Linda Curtis, who organized the group’s unsuccessful petition drive to recall Mayor Will Wynn for his support of the toll road plan, predicted that the upcoming Council elections could signal a shift in the city’s political landscape. “No one, except for SOS, has successfully transformed a petition drive into real voters that go to the polls,” she said. “That’s the test. If we can do what SOS did in 1992, we’re going to swamp this election. Can we do it? I don’t know. We’re certainly going to try.”

The three candidates backed by the group all expressed their gratitude during the endorsement announcement at the Austin Toll Party headquarters. “My opponents have consistently said they are against toll roads. But this endorsement officially makes me the anti-toll road candidate for Place 1,” said Walker. The political newcomer also urged those dissatisfied with the toll road plan and other aspects of local government to go to the polls. “This is their time to make a stand against the current City Council,” he said. “We need a change from what’s now considered to be almost a ‘farm system’ for the City Council…for some reason, what a lot of the caucuses want to do is continually promote people from the city boards. In many cases, the people who become the favorites in the race are the handpicked candidates of the current City Council. We need to stop that.”

Place 4 candidate Wes Benedict praised the Austin Toll Party for its efforts to raise public awareness about the toll road plan. “Without their help and hard work, much of the city and our elected officials would not realize how important this is to all of the citizens in Austin,” he said. He pledged to vote against toll roads, which he said were not necessary to handle the region’s traffic problems. “A lot of this toll road plan is based on an assumption that we keep having drilled into our heads that Central Texas and the Austin area is going to double in population in 20 years,” he said, arguing that such growth could be prevented. “The people I talk to are not all in favor of trying to out-grow Houston. We don’t have to double the size of the population if that’s not what we want to do. That’s why one of the main focuses of my campaign is to stop giving these tax abatements to these very large corporations to move here.”

While Benedict stressed the financial impact of the toll road plan as his basis for opposition, Place 3 candidate Margot Clarke said she opposed the toll roads primarily because of the manner in which they had been approved. “The very centerpiece of my campaign is preserving our sense of community through public participation in the decisions that shape our city,” she said. “There was no public participation in the development of the toll plan. There was essentially no listening to the public reaction after the plan was presented…and I think that goes against every principle of good government.”

On Sunday, candidates got to answer a varied set of questions, including those about toll roads, from members of the Travis County Libertarian Party and moderator Patrick Timpone, a radio talk show host. Place 1 candidate Casey Walker railed against property taxes, but frontrunner Lee Leffingwell pointed out that only 44 cents out of a total of $2.70 per $100 valuation goes to the city, while the county and the school district take much bigger bites.

Place 1 candidate Andrew Bucknall promised not to take more than $100 from any contributor, drawing laughter from some in the audience who were well aware of the $100 legal limit. Candidate Casey Walker complained about the City Manager’s proposal to loan $750,000 to Midtown Live as a way to promote African-American businesses. He asked why the city had not helped another African-American-owned business, Dot’s Place, when it burned down. That establishment was not within the city limits, according to a knowledgeable source in the audience.

Place 4 candidate Jennifer Gale said her platform includes “an Austin-owned objective newspaper,” as well as solar power in every home. Wes Benedict voiced his opposition to incentives for businesses to locate in Austin. “These deals are sold to us as a way to grow the tax base. Those calculations are based on revenue to the city,” he said. If a company were to ask him to grant them $10 million in incentives, Benedict said, “to me, that would have a corrupt influence.” Incumbent Council Member Betty Dunkerley sought to correct Benedict, who complained about giving away tax money. “We’re not giving any tax money to anybody,” she said. After a company has brought in a lot of jobs and generated taxes, she said, “we rebate a portion of it back. It’s a short-term deal.”

Gale said she planned to hire Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman and her aide, Jerry Rusthoven, to work in her office after she is elected. She did not indicate whether either of them had agreed to that arrangement.

Place 3 candidates had to wait until last. Candidate Mandy Dealey decided that she could not accomplish anything constructive by staying. Asked whether the city should regulate the location of big box stores, Gregg Knaupe said he believes “the market is going to control what businesses locate” in which neighborhoods. However, he acknowledged that in Austin “neighborhoods do have some control” over such matters. He said such businesses should not be given incentives. Jennifer Kim said, “as consumers, we vote with our pocketbooks.” At the same time, she said she would like to see the city “cut red tape” for small businesses to make it easier for them to compete. Margot Clarke said she supports the city working with neighborhoods to see what they want. She also said zoning—which is within the purview of the City Council—determines to a great extent what businesses may locate where.

Rail leader says relocation deal 6-9 months in future

Central Texas rerouting may be easier than some

Gov. Rick Perry’s recently signed memorandum of understanding with Union Pacific to reroute freight trains around the state’s major urban areas is a step forward for a possible commuter rail line between Austin and San Antonio.

The major obstacle – other than funding – is the acquisition of the Union Pacific line. It is the only way to make the project financially feasible, say members of the board for the Austin-San Antonio Intermunicipal Rail District Last week, Perry said the memorandum with Union Pacific marks the first time any state has partnered with a private rail company to consolidate, improve and relocate existing freight rail lines away from cities.

Both Capital Metro’s Leander-Downtown line and the Austin-San Antonio commuter rail line grant applications will go to the Federal Transportation Authority (FTA) in August. The Austin-San Antonio rail line would be a 110-mile rail trip from Georgetown to San Antonio. District chair Sid Covington said the rail agency continues to try to complete its own negotiations with Union Pacific in order to pin down alternate routes for the freight rail line.

“From the practical standpoint, we’re still continuing to work with UP,” Covington said. “We’re going to have come up with an alternate alignment and a cost for them to build that alignment. A lot of negotiations will come into play, because both sides are going to have to see some benefit from the deal. This is really about trading capacity.”

Covington said the alignment options would take additional engineering work, most likely covered by a federal grant US Rep. Lamar Smith (R-San Antonio) secured as seed money for the rail district. Covington expects to see some fruition in the Central Texas negotiations with UP within the next six to nine months.

Perry said public-private partnerships are the only way to both decrease hazardous crossings and cut traffic-related deaths from rail collisions.

“Relocating rail lines from crowded city centers will lead to safer crossings, less hazardous cargo carried through populated areas, greater efficiency in the movement of products from the warehouse to the market and the potential benefit of acquiring prime real estate for the development of new roads without tearing down homes and businesses in the process,” Perry said at his news conference last week.

Union Pacific needs access to more freight capacity. The state needs affordable rail lines. The deal could come to fruition, but Perry’s office admits the projects that would move Union Pacific off its established rail line onto new tracks have yet to be decided. Neither the state nor Union Pacific has yet to offer to pick up the cost, which could be in the billions, depending on how much new track would be needed.

The Central Texas area offers some alternatives that could make it less expensive than other areas of the state. For instance, new rail for Union Pacific between Georgetown and San Antonio – if the rail is re-routed—could use a portion of the right-of-way for State Highway 130. The rail district also has contemplated re-routing the Union Pacific line over to another existing UP track between Bastrop and Georgetown.

Covington said it was a good first step but not conclusive proof that the deal could be completed. The main benefit to the rail district is the fact it can show the Federal Transportation Administration that the state has a tentative agreement to relocate the track.

“The fact that they have the chairman of UP and the Governor sign this does send a strong message to the FTA,” Covington said. “Certainly this does help us significantly with the FTA grant application.”

Tennis center expansion subject to negotiation

Environmental Board asks city staff, neighborhood to seek compromise

Plans to expand the South Austin Tennis Center—on the books since a 1998 Capital Improvements bond election—ran into a roadblock last week, as several members of the Galindo Neighborhood Association opposed the project before the city Environmental Board. Neighbors complained that the city’s plans to expand the tennis center from 10 to 18 courts would eliminate more than 200 trees and exacerbate area drainage problems.

The Tennis Center, located south of West Oltorf Street between South First Street and West Bouldin Creek, shares a 23-acre tract with South Austin Park. The 11-acres park sits to the west of the 12-acre tennis facility, with large portions of the tennis side currently composed of open areas with trees and green space which area residents say is used as park space. The city Parks and Recreation Department (PARD) plans to build four new tennis courts to the north of the existing courts and four more plus expanded parking to the south.

“This is the only park in the Galindo Neighborhood, and one of the few parks in South Austin,” said Sarah Strandman with the Galindo Elementary Neighborhood Association, who made an audio-visual presentation to the board. “Currently, there is a balance of use at the facility: a neighborhood park and public tennis courts. We are concerned because more than 200 trees—mostly cedar trees—will be removed to expand the tennis courts and add parking. We really question the need for this expansion.”

Strandman showed a map of the area and several pictures of the wooded green space where the court expansions are planned. She also showed several areas where there is already poor drainage in the park. “These expansions will only serve to route more water into the neighborhood,” she said. “It does not address an already serious, existing runoff problem in the area.”

Patty Sprinkle, one of about 30 people from the neighborhood who attended the meeting carrying “Save Our Park” signs, said expansion of the tennis center is not compatible with the neighborhood. “Because this is a regional tennis center, traffic will increase in the neighborhood,” she said. “We have seen a renaissance in this neighborhood in the past few years, as more families have moved into the area, and it doesn’t make sense that they want to pave over space in our park.”

Nate Blakeslee, vice president of the neighborhood association, said the group is on record opposing the expansion. “We know the money came from Proposition 2 of the 1998 bonds,” he said, “but it’s not too late to fix this problem. We encourage you to oppose the expansion.”

Other concerns mentioned by neighbors included added “light pollution” from the new courts at night, noise from building the new courts closer to homes next to the facility, and more pollution in West Bouldin Creek.

Theresa Alveo with the city staff said that a survey is currently under way to identify and measure all the trees which will be cut for the expansion. “Almost all of them are junipers (cedar), but one is an oak tree,” she said. “The expansion will leave the area’s 23 acres with 26.6 percent impervious cover. We will also be constructing four water quality ponds and a detention pond.”

Stuart Strong with PARD gave the board a brief history of the project, adding that the city is looking to mitigate many of the potential problems cited by the neighborhood. “We will be replacing many of the larger trees that will be cit down, per a standard formula that the city has followed for years,” he said. “We are also planning a raised running trail around the perimeter of the park to channel much of the water runoff into the detention pond.”

Strong also said that the entire tennis center would be given new hooded light standards that would focus the illumination on the courts and away from the neighborhood.

Members of the Environmental Board, noting that the project has been in the planning stages for some time, decided that a little more study would not hurt anything. Board Member William Curra asked both neighborhood leaders and PARD staff if it was possible for them to reach a compromise, such as adding fewer courts or rearranging the project to use less space. Both said they would consider discussing a compromise

“I believe we need to step back and reevaluate the project, as it does not appear to meet certain standards,” said Board Member Phil Moncada. “We need to study drainage, water quality, green space and open space issues as they relate to this project.”

In the end, in order to allow the parties time to talk, and to allow the board to get more information, they voted 7-0 to recommend that the City Council re-evaluate the project and not proceed with the expansion until more is known about how it will affect the neighborhood. Board Member Timothy Riley was absent.

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

City of San Antonio sues … Attorney Casey Dobson of Scott Douglass, who frequently represents the City of Austin, has filed suit on behalf of the Alamo City against the state over an Open Records dispute. San Antonio wants to keep secret maps of electric and gas service lines served by City Public Service, San Antonio’s utility. The city wants to protect the information from terrorists who might be looking for vulnerability in the system, according to a petition filed in state district court last week . . . Stakeholders, public officials to discuss water quality plan tonigh t . . . Members of the core committee and stakeholders who have labored for months to arrive at a regional water quality plan for the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer will meet tonight to talk about the “pre-final draft” of the plan. Stakeholders spent countless hours arriving at what a consensus—three-fourths of the group—could agree upon. The most controversial part, which went through many drafts, involves impervious cover limits. Based on gross site area—not net—developers would be able to develop at 10 percent in the recharge zone and 15 percent in the contributing zone. However, transfer of development rights is a big part of the plan. Those wishing to develop could go up to 45 percent in the contributing zone by purchasing the development rights from some other piece of property. Naismith Engineering acted as consultant on the project . . . It’s your park, go clean it up . . . The Austin Parks Foundation is looking for 1,000 volunteers to help on April 23 at its third annual “ It’s My Park! Day,” a community service event focused on improvements to Austin’s park system. Volunteers will meet at park facilities throughout the city to pick up litter, weed and plant, clear trails, and have fun getting dirty. You can choose from 24 projects.. Check www.austinparks.org for a list of opportunities and registration information. . . Council candidate forums . . . The Austin Lesbian Gay Political Caucus candidate forum and endorsement meeting will begin at 7pm tonight in the first floor hearing room of the Travis County Commissioner’s Court, 314 W. 11th St . . . The Capital Area Progressive Democrats and Texas Environmental Democrats will hold their endorsement meetings tonight, also. They will meet at 6pm at the Gardner Betts Center, 2515 South Congress (just south of Oltorf and South Congress on the east side.) . . . NXNW Democrats will meet to consider endorsements at 6pm at the Temple Beth Israel, 3901 Shoal Creek Blvd. . . . City meetings. . . The Police Monitor’s Citizen Review Panel will hold a special meeting tonight at the East Community Branch YMCA, 5315 Ed Bluestein. The police monitor will brief the panel in closed session from 4:30-6pm. After that there will be remarks concerning two internal affairs cases and public input . . . The Urban Transportation Commission will meet at 6pm in One Texas Center’s 8th Floor Conference Room.

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