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Toll road study closer to initiation

Monday, October 17, 2005 by

Criticism of process continues

A study of proposed toll roads in Central Texas, initiated by Council Member Brewster McCracken, is getting closer to happening, with most of the stakeholders on board with the process and a consultant named to guide the process.

Members of the Council’s Land Use and Transportation Subcommittee heard an update on the process last week from city Chief Financial Officer John Stephens, who said that a draft interlocal agreement had been presented to all the various entities, along with a request for assistance with funding. After a competitive bid process, Charles Herbert Associates of Boston was chosen as consultant on the project.

The study grew out of a measure passed March 10 by the Austin City Council, approving $100,000 towards the study. It was later expanded to take in other stakeholders in the toll road program that is currently part of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s (CAMPO) 2025 Transportation Plan. Stephens said the cost of the study is estimated at $354,000.

“One of the critical parts of the process was getting a buy-in from the CTRMA (Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority),” Stephens said. “That is a big help in getting all of the other stakeholders on board with the study.”

The areas to be studied, according to the interlocal agreement are the “Phase II” toll roads in the CAMPO Plan, including US 183 from I-35 to SH 71; SH 71 from I-35 to Presidential Boulevard; 290 E from US 183 to SH 130; 290 W (the “Y” in Oak Hill); Loop 360 from LP 1 North to US 290 West (study purposes only); and SH 45 Southwest from Loop 1 to FM 1626.

The stakeholders in the process, and the amount of money either sought or contributed are City of Austin ($144,000); CTRMA ($100,000); Travis County ($25,000); Hays County ($10,000); Williamson County ($25,000); and City of Round Rock ($25,000). Round Rock has not yet approved the funding or the interlocal agreement.

So far, membership on the Steering Committee includes Austin Council Members McCracken and Betty Dunkerley; Commissioner Frankie Limmer of Williamson County; Judge Jim Powers of Hays County; District Engineer Bob Daigh of the Texas Department of Transportation; and Reps. Mike Krusee (R-Round Rock) and Mark Strama (D-Austin). Representatives from Round Rock and the CTRMA have yet to be appointed.

Despite the start of the study being several weeks off, critics have already made their voices heard.

Joe Gieselman, executive manager of Travis County’s T ransportation and Natural Resources Department told commissioners last week that he had concerns about the study. “It just appears that some of the questions being asked are somewhat leading questions,” Gieselman said. “I’m not sure I’d pay a consultant this type of money to answer those kinds of questions.” (See In Fact Daily, Oct. 14, 2005)

Austin Toll Party founder Sal Costello claims that McCracken has allowed the CTRMA to “hijack” the review process. “The committee, virtually a mini-CAMPO, can decide NOT to accept the study results,” he said in a recent statement. “But, most importantly, should the fox be guarding the hen house? How can the toll authority review themselves?”

McCracken defends bringing others into the project, saying those who will share in the benefits should help pay for it. “I believe you get more done working together than working alone,” he said. “I think this process is a good one.”

He also addressed the early criticism of the study, saying it seemed to be coming from both sides of the spectrum. “I think it was President Kennedy that said that when you’ve made people on all sides of an issue mad, you must being doing it right.”

Dunkerley outlines bond package economics

Wish list totals more than $800 million, but package will likely be less

Members of Real Estate Council of Austin (RECA) heard from City Manager Toby Futrell and Council Member Betty Dunkerley at their most recent luncheon meeting. The city officials made a presentation to the business group about next year’s city bond package. The specifics of the proposal are still being discussed by the city’s Bond Advisory Committee, which was given a list of needs totaling $800 million from the City Manager. Dunkerley told RECA members that while the city’s needs actually exceeded $800 million, she believed the maximum amount of the bond package would be closer to $500 million.

“I’m only one vote on the Council,” she said. “This is really a community decision.” But she also outlined some of the factors, which would likely play a role in her decision on how large of a proposal to put on the ballot.

One of those factors will be the impact on the city’s property tax rate. Without raising taxes, the city could issue $279 million in bonds as previous bonds are paid off. A one-cent hike above the effective rate for one year, Dunkerley said, would allow the city to issue $360 million in bonds. Keeping the one-cent hike in place for two years would yield a $500 million dollar bond package.

“We do have a very low property tax rate for what this community seems to want,” she said. “I do think that we have some room to add a few cents to this rate in order to get the facilities and the infrastructure needs that we have.”

Dunkerley also predicted the $500 million dollar figure would be accepted by the three major bond rating agencies. “It is an art in setting a bond package. You have to figure out what you think the voters would support, what we need, and what we think we can get a good bond rating on,” she said. “And we’ve been tremendously successful in keeping our bond ratings high during a very tough economic downturn.”

Those rating agencies consider the city’s tax rate, the city’s overall level of bond debt compared to the assessed property value in the city, the total bond debt of overlapping taxing jurisdictions, and the ability of city management to stand by the city’s adopted fiscal policies.

While Austin has done well in all of those areas, Dunkerley said there was one area where the rating agencies could cast a critical eye. That’s the city’s debt per capita. “That’s when you take your total direct debt and divide it by your population,” she explained. Since Austin has one of the higher debt per capita ratios among major Texas cities, “We either need to get more people, or not let our debt get much higher.”

Although Austin has a smaller population than Dallas, Houston or San Antonio, the city is still compared to those larger metro areas. “The next one closest to us is Houston, then you have Arlington…so we already are very much the highest,” Dunkerley said. “But we’ve got these other strong things that counterbalance that. So really, the art comes in how much we can move up that tax rate and how much debt we can issue.”

A one-cent increase above the effective rate for two years would increase the city’s debt per capita ratio by an acceptable level, Dunkerley said, but moving to three years would drive that ratio up to two or three times the ratio of some other Texas cities. “It is a real concern of mine,” she concluded.

Dunkerley encouraged RECA members to get involved in the community debate over the bond package and the particular projects which could eventually wind up on the ballot. RECA Board President Jim Knight echoed the plea, asking members of the audience to give special attention to the idea of issuing bonds to support affordable housing.

“Affordable housing is a real issue right now. We’ve got two choices. One is to say you can’t get affordable housing in Austin,” he said, warning the crowd that if that were the case, their children would likely not be able to afford to live in Austin in the future. “The other is to help create some kind of program.”

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

Mayor’s Disability Awards. . . Mayor Will Wynn will host tonight’s Mayor's Committee for People with Disabilities 26th Annual Disability Employment Awards and Recognition Program. "I’m proud to recognize our community’s outstanding business leaders who invest in the skills and contributions of workers with disabilities," Mayor Wynn said. The program is part of Austin’s celebration of National Disability Employment Awareness Month. This year’s award winners are: Employee of the Year, Tom Markowski; Large Employer, Home Depot; Small Employer, Integrated Airline Services; Medium Employer, El Arroyo Restaurant; Martha Arbuckle Meritorious Award, Sue Ellen Woodlief; Media Award(s), Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, Tony Plohetski- Austin American Statesman; Entrepreneurship Award, Tamara Chapman; Distinguished Service Award, The Odyssey School; Public Employer, Travis County Transportation and Natural Resources Division/Road Bridge Department; 2004 Partnership Awards, Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services–Mary Lee Foundation; Chairman’s Commendations; Marilyn Armour- UT School of Social Work, Allison Orr- Forklift Danceworks, Penny Seay – UT Center for Disability Studies, Cheryl Acorn – Austin Task Inc; Unsung heroes— Hurricane Evacuation Response, Janice Wallace/Greg Wallace – EMS volunteer first responder, Westlake Fire Department firefighters, Von Fuller, Paul Hilgers and staff, City of Austin Neighborhood Housing and Community Development. The free awards event will be from 6 to 8:30pm at the Red Lion Hotel, 6121 N. I-35 at US 290 East. . . Meetings . . . The Board of Adjustment will meet at 5:30pm tonight at One Texas Center, Room 240 to review policy and legal issues regarding variances, interpretations, board rules, staff case reports and related items. . . The Austin Community College Board of Trustees meets at 6pm at the Highland Business Center, 5930 Middle Fiskville Rd. Firmly opposed . . . Local elected officials will gather at 10am at City Hall this morning to voice their opposition to Constitutional Amendment No. 2, which would place the ban on same sex marriage and civil unions in the Texas Constitution. State law already defines marriage as taking place only between a man and a woman . . . Democratic Women elects leaders . . . The Capital Area Democratic Women has chosen Alicia Butler as president, Karen Gross as vice president and Linda Leff as secretary. Kristy Willis will continue as the group’s treasurer and Megan Woodburn is in charge of special events coordination . . . Hays County: Today & Tomorrow. . . A Town Hall meeting on the future of Hays County is planned at 7:30 pm tonight at the Friendship Baptist Church on FM 1826 (just south of Nutty Brown Rd.). Speakers will include Hays County Commissioner Russ Molenaar, Regional Water Quality Protection Plan Executive Director Terry Tull, and Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District Directors Andrew Backus and Doug Wierman. There will be opportunities to ask questions of all presenters.

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