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Transportation featured in LWV forum

Monday, April 24, 2006 by

Candidates in the May 13 City Council elections sounded off on a variety of issues Sunday during a candidates’ debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the City of Austin Ethics Commission. Hopefuls for Places 2, 5, and 6, and the Mayor’s race answered predetermined questions and outlined their platforms in a forum City Hall forum that was broadcast live on Cable Channel 6. Channel 6 will replay the forum throughout the next three weeks.

In the mayoral race, incumbent Will Wynn and Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas outlined some of their differences on transportation policy, The Mayor stressed his commitment to both mass transit and toll roads, while Thomas was more reserved in dealing with the questions proposed during the forum. Frequent candidate Jennifer Gale is also running for Mayor.

The candidates were asked whether they would support removing roads from the Central Texas toll road plan approved by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization and the CTRMA. Wynn, who serves on the CAMPO board, said the time was not right to begin undoing the plan he voted to approve in 2004. “Our vote two years ago was based on the fact that the state has made it very clear to us that there is no more gas tax money available,” he said. “That vote kept us at the table with TxDOT as we worked to try to fix this urban highway system. We have stayed at the table. There is a current alternatives analysis going on…and I wouldn’t pull any of those roads out of the plan until that analysis is complete sometime later this year.”

Thomas, who also serves on the CAMPO board, said he was not satisfied with the information received from TxDOT as board members considered toll roads. On removing some roads from the plan, he said, “I’m always open to think out of the box. What I would look at if we’re going to reverse it…if it’s going to be beneficial to the community, if it’s not going to put any more burdens on the taxpayers, I would definitely look at what we could do.”

The two men also differed on the possibility if installing streetcars in downtown Austin to complement Capital Metro’s commuter rail line. Wynn said he would be willing to spend city tax dollars on streetcars, provided other government agencies also helped fund the project. “The fact is, Capital Metro is in a very finite financial model. When it comes to the downtown part of this community, if we need to have effective mass transit and want it, and I do…I think the City of Austin, Travis County, the State of Texas, and the University of Texas…as major downtown stakeholders are going to have to band together with Capital Metro to expand their very limited financial model in order for them to help us ease the traffic crisis we’re in.”

Thomas urged supporters of streetcars to wait until other transportation projects were completed before asking for funding. “A lot of particular interests want streetcars. If we’re going to go the same route we went on light rail, I would have to look at that very closely,” he said. With the commuter rail line still not complete, “I don’t know about bringing a trolley car in. I would hope that whoever wants to push the trolley car would let us get the commuter rail together,” he said, along with the rapid bus routes that are part of Capital Metro’s “All Systems Go” plan.

Place 2: May, Martinez and Benedict

Place 2 candidates also tackled the streetcar issue, splitting over whether they would support using city tax dollars for the mass transit project. “I do see the opportunity to bring in some new concepts in actually moving people in and out of our city, and more importantly into the emerging and very prosperous central business district,” said Eliza May. “So I would be very supportive of a connector system that we could have downtown that would go beyond the commuter rail system. I would actually be supportive of it moving out into some of the new areas that we’re beginning to develop, for example the Spring Condominiums, because we need to be able to ensure that we’re not only moving the people that live in this community…but that we also have opportunities to move the people that are moving in, the new residents of downtown, to actually be able to move around and leave those cars behind.”

The other two candidates did not share May’s enthusiasm for streetcars. “Obviously I’m very supportive of a multi-modal transit system. I’m not sure that I can commit to a $10 million amount right now, because we don’t know what resources are available,” said Mike Martinez, referring to the dollar figure provided by the League of Women statement that the possible amount would be in the tens of millions of dollars. “I am going to ask my colleagues as a Council Member to appoint me to the board of Capital Metro so that I can be a strong advocate of how we develop this multi-modal transit system for years to come.”

For Wes Benedict, the streetcar proposal was not one that deserved consideration. “I think the streetcar plan is a bad idea and it’s a waste of tax dollars,” he said. “I would rather take a portion of the Capital Metro sales tax and devote it to road construction. Voters defeated light rail. I think Capital Metro is trying to sneak this in piece by piece.”

Place 5: McCracken's opponents

The debate among the Place 5 candidates was notable for the absence of incumbent Council Member Brewster McCracken. The other three candidates, Mark Hopkins, Colin Kalmbacher, and Kedron Touvell, were in unison on most of the issues, and occasionally called up McCracken’s record for criticism.

In Fact Daily contacted McCracken late Sunday afternoon, and he said he was unaware that the forum was being held. A letter had been mailed to all candidates on March 20, but McCracken said he never saw the notice.

The three opponents were particularly critical of McCracken’s record on voting for the CAMPO toll road plan. Touvell, a former software engineer with IBM, said McCracken and others on the Council had shown a lack of leadership in that area. “I do not believe we need a task force to tell us this is a bad idea,” he said. “It’s a disaster for taxpayers, and it goes against what Envision Central Texas proposes. I would do everything possible to keep these toll roads from going in”

Hopkins said his only reason for running was to oppose the toll road plan. “It’s a tax equity issue,” he said. “They are proposing that Austin have more lanes of toll road than any other city in the state and in the rest of country. We’ve already paid for most of these roads – it’s double taxation.” Kalmbacher said the whole process smacks of corruption. “If you haven’t bought a Council member, your voice isn’t going to heard on this issue.”

All three also called for the city to put more money into affordable housing, improve programs for the homeless, and supported Propositions 1 and 2.

Place 6: Pierce, Lofton and Cole

In the race to replace Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas, all three candidates had strong opinions about building infrastructure in East Austin, providing economic incentives for small businesses and improving relations between Austin police and the minority community.

The three candidates, DeWayne Lofton, Sheryl Cole, and Darrell Pierce, agreed in principle on issues regarding the Open Government charter amendment, stating that they did not support it in its current form, but did support many of the principles it puts forward.

Lofton, a risk manager for the Texas Association of School Boards, said government should be transparent. “I would be willing to work on some form of open government ordinance that addresses the issues in Proposition 1,” he said. “It’s important that government is transparent, and I would be willing to work with others on the Council to develop a policy.” Cole and Pierce made similar statements, with Pierce noting that whatever technology the city employs for information should be both timely and cost effective.

Asked about how to solve the city’s drainage issues, Cole, an attorney and accountant, said the city needs to ramp up its approach. “There is a huge backlog of drainage project that need the city’s attention,” she said. “We need to use a combination of tools, such as bond initiatives, development fees and most money from the general fund, to shore up our infrastructure, particularly in East Austin.” Pierce and Lofton looked to a combination of ways to raise revenues to improve the infrastructure, with Pierce calling for more money from Capital Metro.

On the city’s use of economic incentives and tax abatements to attract employers, Pierce, who works for a government consulting firm, said they can be useful. “The city should be both conservative and smart in how they use them,” he said. “They should be incentive based, but they should also be used to diversify our economy and to assist small businesses as well.” Cole said the city needs to make sure that it’s getting more than it’s giving up, and Lofton said the benefits of such deals need to be more apparent to the average citizen.

All three had strong reactions to the question of how to improve police-community relations. Pierce said the department and its officers need to work out their differences. “There have been some bridges broken,” he said. “Before we can move forward, the APA and APD must bridge the gap between them. We must move towards a policy of de-escalation and disablement of detainees without using deadly force.” Lofton said both sides need to keep talking. “We need an honest dialogue between the key stakeholders,” he said. The officers need to recognize the value that citizens bring to the process.“ Cole said education needs to occur on both sides. “Officers need to understand more about the communities they patrol,” she said. “And youth often need help to understand how to react to an officer. The issue needs a lot of study. “

Early voting in the May 13 election begins on May 1, one week from today.

©2006 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Council endorsements. . . The Austin Women’s Political Caucus endorsed the re-election of Mayor Will Wynn and the election of S heryl Cole in Place 6. The group also did dual endorsements in Place 2 and Place 5. Surprisingly, the women’s group endorsed both Eliza May and Mike Martinez for the seat being vacated by Raul Alvarez and gave a nod to both incumbent Brewster McCracken and challenger Kedron Touvell. . . The Southwest Austin Democrats endorsed May in Place 2, Darrell Pierce in Place 6, McCracken for Place 5 and Wynn for re-election . . . The Austin Toll Party endorsed Martinez and Wes Benedict for Place 2 and Touvell for Place 5 . . . Another Municipal Court complaint . . . Toll road activist Sal Costello says he has filed a complaint against Council Member Brewster McCracken's reelection campaign in the Austin Municipal Court for failing to reveal the names of persons who are collecting contributions on his behalf. McCracken says he did not need to file such information because he does not have any “bundlers.” Under the city ordinance, candidates are required to disclose the name of anyone who raised $100 or more per person from five or more individuals. This disclosure requirement does not apply to supporters “who raise funds in an aggregate amount of $5,000 or less for a candidate or officeholder through a fundraising event in that individual’s residence” . . . Forum tonight . . . The ACLU will hold a forum at Café Caffeine, 909 W. Mary, at 6:30pm . . . Doggett to be honored by environmental group . . . Congressman Lloyd Doggett will receive an award named for 90-year old East Texas environmentalist Ned Fritz and the late Congressman Bob Eckhardt at a party tonight. The group, Texas League of Conservation Voters, will hold its event at the home of Kirk and Elizabeth Watson . . . May launches Spanish language website . . . With so many Spanish speaking citizens, it seems only natural that someone would launch a bilingual web site. The May campaign says they are the first. To view the site, go to: . . Design Commission meeting tonight . . . The panel will hear about the University of Texas’ planned Hotel on MLK Boulevard. Presenters include Pat Clubb, Fritz Steiner, Lawrence Speck, and David Lake . . . Meetings . . . The Historic Landmark Commission meets at 7pm in Council Chambers at City Hall . . . The Human Rights Commission meets at 5:30pm in Council Chambers at City Hall.

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