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Questions arise on taxi lottery rules

Tuesday, July 11, 2006 by

Commission, Martinez say franchise award rules irrational

Facing an uphill battle and a tight time schedule, members of the Urban Transportation Commission agreed last night to an ambitious series of subcommittee meetings to rewrite the ordinance spelling out how the city awards taxi company franchises.

Taxicab franchises have become a hot-button issue following the City Council’s recent decision to allow Yellow Cab to purchase most of the permits belonging to Roy’s Taxi, concentrating close to 80 percent of all cab permits in one company

City staff reported to the commission that the current city ordinance provides that when market conditions warrant issuing a new franchise that staff must certify that eligible companies meet the city’s minimum standards. Then the Council awards the franchise by lottery. Council is scheduled to draw a name out of a hat at its July 27 meeting.

"Something needs to be done," said Commission Member Patrick Goetz. "The current system is broken…it’s unconscionable. It doesn’t make any sense to choose a franchise this way."

Morris Poe with the Public Works Department said the city’s taxi ordinance specifies that when there are less than five taxi franchises for five years, staff may determine that another franchise should be awarded. Poe said that after issuing an RFQ, his department found that three companies— Capitol City Cab, Lone Star Cab and Longhorn Taxi—met the city’s minimum standards for proposed service, equipment, financial ability, experience and lack of criminal history.

"That means that these companies only have to meet minimum standards to qualify to be chosen," said Chair Andrew Clements. "Every other franchise handed out by the city is chosen by merit. City staff ranks the candidates on a matrix based on their qualifications. Why isn’t that happening in this situation?"

Poe explained that the lottery system was devised by the Council in 2003 in order to give smaller companies a chance at a franchise. He said the new franchise would be awarded 55 taxi permits—52 of them new and 3 transferred from the sale of Roy’s. Another 20 will be awarded to Austin Cab, the city’s other current franchise, to provide opportunities for former Roy’s drivers who don’t want to work for Yellow Cab.

Many of the cab drivers who packed the meeting said they are opposed to the creation of a new company with 55 permits, saying there are already too many cabs on Austin streets for the amount of business that’s available. Other said the problem lies in the high daily fees charged by Yellow Cab to its drivers, which combined with high gas prices makes it difficult to earn a reasonable profit

The commission’s Ground Transportation Subcommittee plans to meet twice a week, starting next Tuesday, to develop an alternative plan to the current lottery system to present to Council before its next meeting.

"We need to start up a dialogue over what the system should be," said subcommittee chair Michelle Brinkman. "Perhaps the system should be based on permits rather than franchises. Then cab drivers with permits would be free to negotiate with cab companies, who are basically dispatch services. Whatever we do we need to come up with a more rational system."

Other suggestions included having at least one of the city’s cab companies be driver owned and developing a system where franchisees and drivers split the financial risk.

The subcommittee will have limited time to act. Council is scheduled to hold the lottery at its July 27 meeting. But that will constitute only first reading, and the Council must wait a minimum of 30 days after that before third reading to award a franchise.

The panel will have at least one ally in its quest. Council Member Mike Martinez has expressed an interest in doing away with the lottery system, and requested that City Manager Toby Futrell’s staff draft an ordinance changing it to an RFP process. "I don’t believe awarding this via a lottery is good policy and will not be supporting a lottery selection," at the meeting, he said.

The time and place of next week’s subcommittee meeting will be posted later this week.

CAMPO again delays vote on toll roads

Mobility plan wins approval

The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Transportation Policy Board has once again delayed a vote to add the region’s second phase of toll roads to the three-year Transportation Improvement Plan but did agree last night to endorse the Texas Metropolitan Mobility Plan (TMMP), which has become a lightning rod for the toll road controversy.

The TMMP holds no tangible fiscal sway – it is simply a documented "wish list" of projects passed on to the Texas Transportation Commission to outline unfunded statewide transportation needs – but a number of board members were hung up on the terminology, fearful that a "yes" vote on the TMMP report would imply an endorsement of toll roads. The draft of an independent toll road feasibility study – and possible alternatives for various road projects — should be completed by the end of summer.

Questions posed by Rep. Mark Strama (D-Austin) last month on gas tax issues – and what it would save to replace toll roads with gas-tax dollars – will be answered next month by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority when it gets more accurate traffic-and-revenue forecasts. The Texas Department of Transportation also will be providing updated information when current environmental studies are complete, which could be a couple of months. Both updates have pushed back further action on the future of the second phase of the regional toll road plan.

Last night, the repeated line of questioning from a number of board members was whether the vote for the TMMP constituted an endorsement of the toll road plan. They were assured it was not, although some seemed skittish and Rep. Donna Howard(D-Austin) abstained because she did not feel comfortable with the vote. Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin), a toll road opponent, voted against the report.

The TMMP, requested from the eight major metropolitan regions in the state, is intended to give Gov. Rick Perry and the Texas Transportation Commission a running tally of the cost to reduce traffic congestion in the state. In the three-county CAMPO region the total is $26.7 billion, which is about $10 billion higher than the approved 2030 CAMPO Plan. The 2030 CAMPO plan only allows the region to keep pace with congestion, rather than provide a serious reduction in traffic as the region grows.

The discussion – while cast in the opposition to toll roads – put the Austin region, once more, in the position of potentially minimizing future state highway needs in the region. As Strama – no fan of toll roads – put it, it would be difficult to say no to the plan, knowing that every other region in the state had put up their comprehensive wish lists. Passage of the TMMP does not guarantee funding, but it does put the state on notice for the needs and priorities of the region’s state roadways. Some have blamed the Austin toll road situation on the fact the region was quick to turn away funding two decades ago, which led to the need for toll roads, and added a certain irony to last night’s vote beyond the actual issue of toll roads.

The discussion did produce some minor protests beyond tolls. Commissioner Gerald Daugherty strongly questioned the inclusion of the relocation of the Union Pacific rail line in the region’s unfunded short-term priorities, which amounted to about $4 billion. The rail line relocation was half the price tag but would yield far less than half the results when it comes to taking cars off the road and reducing regional congestion.

Council Member Brewster McCracken countered that mass transit did have its benefits, allowing greater density and a higher tax base in certain areas of the city as well as giving families the option to forego an extra car. For his part, McCracken wasn’t pleased with scenarios presented by the CAMPO staff that excluded the first phase of toll roads, saying that the various scenarios gave an inflated impact to proposed construction.

The final points made were that the projects in the TMMP were not funded and would not be funded – short-term or long-term – without approval of the board. The report must go to TxDOT by August 1.

Committee supports adult helmet law

The Mayor’s Committee on People with Disabilities is supporting the idea of a mandatory bicycle helmet law. The group passed a resolution in endorsing the idea at their meeting on Monday, with the provision that members would like to see the actual language of the ordinance once it is drafted. Former Mayor Bruce Todd launched a public campaign to reinstate the helmet law for adult cyclists earlier this year following his recovery from a serious bicycle accident.

Todd was not available for Monday’s committee meeting, but former Mayor Gus Garcia attended to urge the group to endorse the helmet proposal. "The helmet ordinance is the first step in making Austin a better cycling community," Garcia said. "Our children need to grow up with a positive example of safe, responsible riders in our cycling community. We cannot expect our children to learn to protect themselves properly by wearing helmets unless we practice what we preach. There is nothing magic about the age of 17 when it comes to head injuries. Adults need protection, too."

Garcia was joined by staff from Todd’s office and Eric Makowski, the president-elect of the Brain Injury Association of Texas. Makowski provided the committee with information about the devastating effects of head injures like those that can be sustained in bicycle accidents. Those effects, he said, were not limited to the victims themselves but also impacted their families and society. "Only 5 percent of brain-injury patients have private resources to pay for adequate care. Adequate care is not just the ICU cost in the hospital," he said. "And it’s not just the families that are bearing this. It falls on all the taxpayers to pick up these bills. If people don’t get rehabilitation in a timely way, they can end up on the street, in prison, or in nursing homes. Any one of those routes, taxpayers help pay for. Even non-helmeted accident victims with adequate insurance coverage affect the community by driving up rates for everyone else."

After hearing additional information about helmet laws in Dallas and the state of Washington, members of the committee voted to support the idea in Austin with the provision that they would like to review the ordinance language. That review would focus on enforcement provisions and on making sure the rules written for cyclists do not impact the users of wheelchairs or other mobility-assistance devices. "I don’t have a problem with the concept. I wear a helmet, and my grandsons wear helmets," said committee member Norman Kieke. "I cringe when I don’t see people wearing helmets."

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

McCracken studying affordable housing options . . . Council Member Brewster McCracken said Monday he and his staff are studying various options for adding affordable housing incentives or requirements for developers who want to take advantage of vertical mixed use regulations. He said models they are studying include the one used in the University’s UNO area, which allows payment in lieu of affordable housing set-asides, a mandatory approach like that projected for the Rainey Street neighborhood and various options relating to a community land trust. He expects study and discussion of the options to continue through the summer . . . Blessing of the Springs today . . . About 30 Chinese monks from the Wudang Monastery, site of the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, will be at Barton Springs at 10am today. The monks, in full ceremonial attire, "will perform a special ceremony for peace, and to impart a blessing for Barton Springs, Save Our Springs Alliance, and all those who work to protect the springs," according to SOS. Those interested in receiving the blessing are invited to participate . . . Food drive begins at Grande . . . For the fifth straight year, Grande employees will conduct the company’s internal food drive called Hunger is Year Round" to benefit the Capital Area Food Bank of Texas. Since 2000, Grande employees have collected more than 190 tons of food, and this year they plan to assist hundreds of nonprofit organizations and millions of Texans who rely on food bank programs each day.. . . Today at Travis County . . . Travis County Commissioners will consider their role in the Texas redistricting case on Tuesday morning. The county remains a plaintiff in the case and commissioners could choose to submit a map that supports its position, which is to create a more compact Travis County-centric configuration for the 25th Congressional District. Longtime Austin Congressman Lloyd Doggett represents that district, which stretches to McAllen. Doggett currently lives in East Austin . . . Meetings . . . The Planning Commission meets at 6pm in Council Chambers at City Hall . . . The Travis County Commissioners Court meets at 9am in Commission Chambers at 314 W. 11th St. . . . The Williamson County Commissioners Court meets at 9:30am in the County Annex on Inner Loop Drive in Georgetown . . . The Hays County Commissioners Court meets at 9am in the Hays County Courthouse in San Marcos . . . Increased Edwards pumping. . . The Edwards Aquifer Authority Board of Directors will consider approving rules that allow increased pumping from the Edwards Aquifer above the limits contained in state law at a meeting slated for today in New Braunfels. The EAA board will meet at 3pm at the New Braunfels Civic Center, 380 S. Seguin Avenue. The Guadalupe Basin Coalition, an organization of downstream stakeholders, opposes the proposed action by the EAA as a threat to spring flow and downstream communities, said Tom Taggart, Coalition Chair and Water/ Wastewater Utility Director for the City of San Marcos. The extra pumping could affect flows in the San Marcos and Blanco Rivers. The EAA is proposing to increase aquifer pumping by implementing a so-called junior-senior groundwater pumping program. The program would allow pumping of up to 99,000 acre feet of water per year over the EAA’s statutory limit of 450,000 acre feet. Most of the additional aquifer pumping that may be authorized would eventually be used to meet San Antonio’s water needs as expressed in the San Antonio Water Systems 2005 Water Resources Plan Update. The EAA is not to be confused with the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, which governs pumping from the northern section of the aquifer in southern Travis and northern Hays Counties.

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