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Transportation money siphoned off

Thursday, April 14, 2005 by

Local business leaders hear how shift in funds hurts local mobility

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority may be forced to bear the brunt of the Texas Senate’s inability to find new sources of revenue for public education.

Yesterday, members of the Texas Urban Transportation Alliance (TUTA), including members of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and the Real Estate Council of Austin, met to discuss implications of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s decision to shift a portion of the funding for the Texas Mobility Fund to pay for education.

“What caused this meeting is that last legislative (session) we supported the Texas Mobility Fund,” said coalition member Michael Stevens of Houston. “Yet the more money we get, the more money is taken out of it. We had the potential to pay for our transportation projects, and then we find that lawmakers are taking the money out for other projects.”

The Texas Mobility Fund was to be funded by three fees collected by the Department of Public Safety: the motor vehicle inspection fee; driver’s license fee; and driver’s record information fee. Now Dewhurst says the revenue from the driver’s license and driver’s record information fees would remain in the General Revenue Fund. The change is expected to reduce TMF funding from $470 million to $170 million.

Collin County Judge Ron Harris, who chairs the TUTA, said the urban coalition must step forward now to address the issue. Within the next two weeks, the House and Senate budget will be reconciled and the fees will be diverted.

The drop in anticipated revenue already has had an affect on the Texas Department of Transportation. TxDOT has delayed or cancelled $87 million in road projects in April alone. Central Texas could be considered lucky. Four projects, totaling about $4 million, have been delayed, but only for a month. A fifth project will have to be rescheduled.

If revenue is diverted from the Texas Mobility Fund, TUTA expects serious delays in those bond projects funded by the Texas Mobility Fund, primarily the projects of the nine urban regions in the state. Central Texas was expected to be a chief beneficiary of the fund. The estimate provided at this week’s Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Transportation Policy Committee was an impending $1.7 billion in new road projects.

With only a portion of the funding available for bonds, only a portion of the projects will be funded, the transportation leaders said. Some projects to be delayed and others possibly canceled. And urban leaders have no guarantee that a one-time revenue shift to the General Revenue Fund won’t become a permanent shift to the fund.

TUTA also has raised concerns about how state highway funds are being siphoned from the Fund 006 funds. According to the TUTA, the Senate budget diverts $186 million from Fund 006. The House version of the budget diverts $170 million.

Those diversions include minor funding for the Department of Public Safety, Comptroller’s Department, Texas Transportation Institute and State Office of Administrative Hearings. In the category of major funding, a total of $100 million is diverted to fund the Texas Education Agency.

Notes from the campaign trail

Place 1 candidates trade barbs during RECA, business group forum

Candidates for Austin City Council used the unique format of the RECA/Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce/Downtown Austin Alliance forum at the Four Seasons Wednesday to trade questions and a few barbs in front of a banquet room full of business leaders and real estate professionals. While most candidate forums focus on questions from the audience or a moderator, the RECA forum allows candidates to question each other.

Place 1 candidate Lee Leffingwell drew the heat from the other Place 1 contenders, with Andrew Bucknall challenging Leffingwell on the issue of police-community relations. "We were recently on the national news portrayed as a racist city," he said, referring to the recent controversy surrounding remarks made by some APD employees using a department computer system during the fire at the Midtown Live Nightclub. "We have a divide between our police department and the community in East Austin. I'm curious what your ideas are for solutions to help bridge that divide." While Leffingwell conceded that there may be some bad officers within APD, he defended the department and the city's reputation. "I believe it's an unfair characterization," he said of Bucknall's description of the national media coverage. "I believe there are racists in Austin, but I don't believe Austin is a racist city. That's unfair. We do have one of the best police departments in the country. There are lots of good policemen in it. There are, no doubt, some bad ones in it. They have to be dealt with appropriately and that is being done right now."

Leffingwell also faced questions from Casey Walker over his willingness to vote against the interests of campaign contributors. "This year, RECA members have been incredibly active in donating financially to some of the City Council campaigns. Some now believe RECA's support is the deciding factor in who will win the election. If this is true, a candidate would be very hesitant to stand up against RECA on an issue for fear of it costing him support for election or reelection," said Walker, winding up to his query of Leffingwell. “So, the question is: is there an issue you feel strongly enough to stand up against RECA even if it costs you the election, even if it's toll roads or the environment?" At that point, moderator Mike Rosen of KTBC-TV cut off Walker since he had used up his allotted time.

"I think I've built my campaign on giving honest answers, the same answers, to every group, regardless of what their affiliation is," said Leffingwell. "As to what RECA might or might not do, I have no idea about that, and I will not have an idea about that, because that's called collaboration. Collaboration is grounds for forfeiture of an election, so I would not engage in any discussions like that."

When it came his turn to ask a question, Leffingwell asked opponent Casey Walker whether he intended to vote in the upcoming City Council election. "You registered to vote in this city in 1996," he said, "however, there have been 10 city elections, including runoffs, since that time, and you have yet to vote in a single one."

Walker, a political newcomer, seemed surprised by the question, which was reminiscent of one posed by then-candidate Will Wynn to Marc Katz in 2003 (see In Fact Daily, April 9th, 2003). "I will remind Mr. Leffingwell that just a week ago his campaign manager told me to 'play nice'. I will try and do just that," he said. "I do vote, I do vote in the even year elections. I was not aware that I had not voted in the odd year elections. I'm sure I can get some proof of that, if that is indeed the case. That is an excellent question. I would like to see the proof of that, if that is indeed the case."

Records from Travis County indicate that Walker went to the polls only four times since he registered to vote—in November 1996, 2000, 2002 and 2004. There were no City Council races on any of those ballots. Leffingwell, on the other hand, is a frequent voter, having cast a ballot on 17 occasions since November 1996.

The Place 3 candidates all chose to pose their questions to Gregg Knaupe. Margot Clarke brought up an issue that's been a sore spot for many Democratic clubs in Central and West Austin, which was Knaupe's stance on Proposition 12 in 2003. That voter-approved amendment to the Texas Constitution limited non-economic damages in medical liability cases. Democrats were against the proposal, but Knaupe's employer, the Texas Hospital Association supported it. "You worked to promote the passage of Proposition 12, and yet you've told Democratic clubs that you personally voted against that," Clark said. "My question would be…if you were on the City Council, how would you vote? Would you vote your pocketbook, your contributors, or your principles?"

Knaupe responded that his vote would not be influenced by political contributions. "If you've ever worked for a company, you don't always agree with everything your company does," he said, explaining his position on Proposition 12. "As far as when I'm on the Council, my message has been consistent throughout this campaign. I have not flip-flopped on any issues, I don't plan on it, and I will stay strong in my convictions regardless of who's supporting me."

Knaupe's experience at the Texas Hospital Association also framed his response to the question from Mandy Dealey. "I'd like to know what hands- on experience you have with budgets, developing them, overseeing them, managing them other than just household budgets," she said, calling the city's budget the most important policy document.

"At the Hospital Association I am Vice President of Public Affairs which means I am head of my department," replied Knaupe. "I am personally responsible for setting my budget. Not only am I responsible for setting my budget within the association, I am responsible and am involved in setting the budgets for 450 hospitals across the state that employ over 300,000 people. Because I have to work with them on what their bottom line is and what the issues are when it comes to Medicare and Medicaid funding and funding from insurance companies as well. So I have a depth of experience in that regard.”

The large crowd for the candidate forum helped attract some candidates that have skipped previous forums held by Democratic or environmental groups. Place 4 Candidate John Wickham, a nightclub owner who entered the race because of his opposition to the smoking ordinance on the May 7th ballot, attended and fielded questions. Place 4 Candidate Jennifer Gale arrived late but did participate in the forum. Place 1 write-in Candidate Steve Adams distributed literature outside the meeting, but said officials with the business groups that organized the forum told him that as a write-in candidate, he would not be allowed to take part.

AMD stresses positives in move

Slusher, Goodman not pleased about aquifer location

Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), which plans to build a campus for all of its office and engineering employees on the Lantana tract in Southwest Austin, continued its public relations effort with city officials Wednesday. Two Council Members closely associated with environmental protection expressed concerns about the company’s plan, which will bring approximately 2,000 employees to the 60-acre site over the Barton Springs recharge zone. The company stressed the traffic advantages of the Lantana site, as well as its commitment to going beyond the city’s regulatory requirements.

Council Member Daryl Slusher said he appreciated the fact that AMD and Lantana owner Stratus Properties are willing to contribute $5 million in mitigation money and build less than the amount permitted under grandfathered approvals. “On balance, however, I think this move is detrimental to the aquifer, the springs and the best interests of the city. This reverses almost a decade of major employers complying with the city value of locating in the Desired Development Zone,” Slusher said.

Slusher said he feared that the large development—five buildings with parking garages at the corner of Southwest Parkway and William Cannon—would spur additional development “and that other major employers will stop honoring the community value of locating in the Desired Development Zone.”

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman said she still was not convinced that AMD could not find a suitable location east of the Barton Springs Zone. But she added that the company had looked at the old Vignette site on Cesar Chavez and found the price tag too high.

Goodman said that she wanted some additional commitments from AMD and Stratus beyond what the companies had offered. As she has on other projects, Goodman is asking for a bond to guarantee that water quality ponds and other environmental controls continue to work once installed. “They should get behind the regional water quality plan,” she said. Stakeholders from Travis and Hays Counties and the city have worked for months to come up with a resolution to the water quality versus development rights debate. Goodman said she would like AMD to lobby the Texas Legislature to insure that such plans remain viable.

Goodman said she was happy to learn that a large percentage of AMD’s workforce lives in the area. AMD has told the Council that the relocation will reduce employee commute miles by co-locating 12 buildings spread throughout the city. According to a document AMD supplied to the Council, “Independent research shows that by locating at Lantana, AMD will eliminate 10,000 vehicle miles per day from Austin roads.” In addition, AMD says that 58 percent of its employees live within 10 miles of the tract.

Bruce Perrin, president, Oak Hill Association of Neighborhoods, said the move is a good one. “AMD is the kind of company we want in Oak Hill. Given that traffic is the No. 1 issue in Austin, having AMD locate near their employee base is a smart move. By taking 10,000 vehicle miles per day off of our already congested roadways, AMD will greatly reduce the commutes of a significant number of their employees who already live in Southwest Austin,” he said. “AMD has been a good neighbor to Austin for many years. Now they want to bring their community-oriented operations to Oak Hill. All of us will benefit.”

AMD says it will keep Spansion, its flash memory joint venture with Fujitsu Ltd., at its current manufacturing facility on East Ben White. The company also emphasizes its donations to the community, the approximately $2.6 million in new tax revenue that will go to the Austin Independent School District and the fact that it could build a campus with much higher impervious cover than currently planned.

City environmental officer Pat Murphy confirmed that the Lantana tract has grandfathered regulations. He said Wednesday that the SOS Ordinance would have only allowed about 23 percent impervious cover on the tract. However, Murphy noted that the Legislature is currently considering two bills that would make it very difficult for Austin and other cities to enforce environmental regulations. SB848 won Senate approval yesterday. Under this legislation, a developer would be able to claim grandfather status by turning in a completeness check on a property, even if it is not complete, Murphy said. In addition, a municipal utility would become committed to providing utilities to a site through a service extension request. Another bill, HB 2833, would define any zoning or other ordinance limiting impervious cover to less than 45 percent as a taking. That kind of change in the law would mean that enforcement of the SOS Ordinance would become prohibitively expensive for the city. The bill won approval of a House committee but has yet to be considered by the full House.

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Environmental shindig tonight . . . Place 1 candidate Lee Leffingwell and Place 3 candidate Margot Clarke are holding a joint fundraiser beginning at 7pm tonight at the Barr Mansion,10463 Sprinkle Road. Special guests include Jim Hightower and Fort Worth Rep. Lon Burnam. Saxophonist Alex Coke will serenade the crowd. For more information, visit http://www.EnvironmentalShindig.com or call 371-8770 or 476-4526 . . . Today’s City Council meeting . . . There’s nothing too heavy on today’s agenda. The Council will take a break before lunch to attend the funeral of Dorothy Turner. A hearing on commercial and retail design standards has bee postponed to April 28. Another potentially interesting discussion may be brief. Council Members Danny Thomas and Raul Alvarez have proposed a Community Preservation and Revitalization Zone for East Austin. While there will be a presentation on the idea, the Council is not expected to direct the City Manager to take any specific actions to support affordable housing and small business development in the area. . . Round Rock ruckus . . . More controversy at the Round Rock School Board. District renegade Carol Bernhard sent out an email yesterday to supporters and the media, claiming that lame-duck members of the RRISD board are pushing to name a replacement for resigning member Steve Coperhaver before new members elected on May 7 can take office. “This lame duck board should take no action on Copenhaver's replacement,” she said. “After May 7th, the newly elected board (most recently representative of voters) should decide how and when the place will be filled.” Coperhaver, the board’s vice president, recently resigned after being charged with soliciting sex in exchange for legal services. Bernhard, leader of the group HELP (Helping Educators make Learning the Priority) encouraged other parents to show up at the April 21 board meeting to make sure they don’t name a replacement prematurely. Bernhard led the recent fight to defeat a controversial $349 million bond issue in the district . . . A revealing comment . . . State Rep Beverly Woolley (R-Houston), while introducing a group of registered dieticians in the House gallery yesterday, quipped about her own culinary habits: “Well, if we truly are what we eat, that would make me fast and cheap.”

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