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Rail staffing divides Cap Metro board

Tuesday, October 31, 2006 by

Leffingwell, McCracken argue for union preference

The preferred route for Capital Metro’s streetcar circulator service was unveiled with few surprises at Monday’s board meeting, but staffing the impending commuter rail line from Leander to downtown did produce a brief dust-up between board members and Council Members Lee Leffingwell and Brewster McCracken.

The request for proposals for those who wanted to staff the commuter rail line was intended to be a secondary item on yesterday’s Capital Metro agenda, but it was of primary importance to Leffingwell and McCracken. Both were far more sympathetic than their colleagues to concerns that the addition of a new, and separate, contractor would splinter the Capital Metro workforce even further into different classes and pay scales.

Past contracts gave Star Tran and Capital Metro employees the right of first refusal on rail line jobs if light rail required a decrease in bus routes. That, however, only applied to staffing under a reduction in force. Leffingwell, in particular, wanted to extend protections to existing employees and make sure that Capital Metro turned to current staff first to train and staff the Leander-to-Downtown commuter rail line.

Board member Fred Harless led opposition against the proposal, saying he had nothing against the union – that drew a snort from union organizer Jay Wyatt in the audience — but that it would be bad public policy for Capital Metro to tie the hands of any potential contractor. Capital Metro should seek the best, and cheapest, contractor, Harless said. Leander Mayor John Cowman echoed those concerns, saying that it was important to let market forces dictate just how much it would cost to operate the rail line.

In an initial motion, Harless moved that the contract go forward with no encumbrances on staffing. Leffingwell then offered up an amendment that asked Capital Metro to make sure that all those who operated and maintained the six trains on the new commuter rail lines were in-house Capital Metro or Star Tran employees by 2010.

During discussion, McCracken sharply questioned staff whether Capital Metro had ever run numbers on whether the agency could operate the system itself. They hadn’t. And he asked whether Capital Metro had offered to assist Star Tran in preparing a bid to operate the rail line. They hadn’t done that, either, much to McCracken’s dissatisfaction.

Chair Lee Walker, hoping to smooth the waters, noted that board members shared a common concern that current employees be treated fairly and that any disagreement over the role of Capital Metro employees’ in the rail line would not be resolved before the request for proposal was released. The RFP, which was approved yesterday, will be returned to Capital Metro for consideration by Jan. 15.

“I think this is just the beginning of a critically important discussion. I do believe that the core issue, which regrettably we cannot solve tonight, is this issue of how we have one class of employee at Capital Metro,” Walker told the board. “I think the principle of getting the RFP out is, for some of us, the overriding issue tonight.”

Leffingwell’s amendment went down on a vote of 4-2, with Board members Walker, Harless, Cowman and John Trevino voting against it. After the amendment failed, McCracken said Capital Metro could expect strong opposition from the city if it intended to pursue an anti-union stance as it moved forward with negotiations.

“There are two reasons why it is so important to address this. One is, because it’s an important matter of principle to give that opportunity to the folks that work for us,” McCracken said. “But in a related issue, we saw a very good presentation this evening on the expansion of the rail system. And while this issue remains in limbo, it is going to be a real challenge to have the Austin City Council willing to fund or support an expansion of rail if it means we’re going to go with an out-sourcing model as opposed to a union model. So if this is going to wait until March before it’s resolved at the end of the RFP, I think that is definitely going to have an effect on the City Council’s perspective.”

Leffingwell and McCracken against down the RFP proposal, ending up on the short end of the 2-4 vote. Commissioner Margaret Gomez was absent. At this point, with the system just starting, the actual number of employees being impacted by the proposal – operators and maintenance – would be six trains staffed by eight operators and five maintenance people. In its initial operation, the rail line would run up to nine trips in the morning and nine trips in the afternoon rush hour.

The circulator system — which uses in-lane streetcars and platforms – would mean a $230 million addendum to the current commuter rail line. The proposed route — from Mueller’s town center and neighborhood center down to Manor Road, then over to San Jacinto Road through UT and the Capitol before crossing over to Seaholm – is intended to link commuters to short-haul commutes, such as providing a quick stops for those who live in Mueller and want to attend UT football games, or those students who choose to live along Manor Road and don’t want to park on the university campus.

Planner Lucy Galbraith made a quick presentation of the plan at yesterday’s board meeting, presenting a rapid-fire overview of the 18-month process the agency has taken to try to find preferred routes and methods with various stakeholder groups. Galbraith called the streetcar service “urban friendly.” This is not the quick trip for commuters. This is a transit option with frequent stops intended to encourage people to forego cars.

Some of the facts about the streetcars are these: Streetcars are expected to outpace buses when it comes to ridership, especially when it comes to quick corridor trips. The estimated economic impact would be $362 million for the Mueller and Manor road corridors by the year 2017. The cost per trip on the streetcar would be $1.63, compared to the $1.82 estimated for bus ridership. And the goal would be to fund the locally preferred alternative with those who might benefit from the stops: city, county, state and developer.

Mayor Will Wynn, who made brief remarks to the Capital Metro board, said he was convinced that mass transit was a key to investment in the urban core. With 27,000 state workers, 50,000 university students and 20,000 university employees all sharing the same urban core – not to mention downtown business – transit, and especially rail transit, will become crucial to the success of a strong urban core.

Task Force seeks to cut household water use

Many of Austin’s apartment dwellers, long used to not having to worry about paying for their own water, could soon be writing a monthly check for as much water as they use if the Water Conservation Task Force’s recommendation’s are adopted

The task force, chaired by Council Member Lee Leffingwell, is moving ahead with recommendations requiring apartment complexes built after 2003 to switch to individual billing for their tenants. The panel is also recommending a requirement that all multi-family and commercial properties bring their facilities up to the current plumbing code by 2009, and requiring existing single-family homes be brought up to the current code when they are sold to a new owner.

Those recommendations are still open for debate at future task force meetings, as Leffingwell described their passage on Friday as being equivalent to the first reading of an ordinance at Council. The task force will eventually forward its recommendations to the Council for consideration, but Leffingwell is hopeful that most of the debate over the conservation strategies will occur at the task force level. “As a Council Member, it’s not going to sit well to hear objections after the fact…after it’s presented to Council,” he said, encouraging real estate agents, homebuilders, and developers to step forward and attend the task force meetings. “We want to hear your input now, and not when it’s presented to Council. This is the best time to get your comments in.”

Representatives of the Austin Apartment Association did attend the most recent task force meeting, since one of the recommendations is to require apartments built since 2003 to switch to sub-metering or individual metering for their tenants.

The state began requiring new apartment complexes to include the infrastructure for sub-metering three years ago, but did not require those complexes to use sub-meters. Most complexes instead simply measure the amount of water used by the entire complex each month, then bill their tenants based on a formula. Since those individual users are not billed according to their usage, said Water Conservation Manager Tony Gregg, they tend to use more water.

“We project that tenants and customers in apartments are using about 15 percent more water now than they would be if they were sub-metered,” he said. Getting tenants to be more aware of their water usage, Gregg said, could save about 700,000 gallons per day by the year 2016. The sub-metering recommendation would also apply to commercial lots with two or more duplexes, tri-plexes, or four-plexes, which up until now have been billed in the same fashion as apartment complexes. The sub-metering requirement would not be applied to older apartment complexes built prior to the adoption of new state standards in 2003.

One concern voiced by representatives of the Austin Apartment Association is that individual billing may prove to be a problem in some tax-credit properties build under HUD guidelines for affordable housing. The AAA representative at Friday’s task force meeting indicated it would be preferable in many cases for those complex managers to continue to collect payment for water bills as part of their tenants’ rent payment. While the AAA representative did not go into detail about that recommendation, she did indicate she would be in further contact with the task force members.

Another task force recommendation that would apply to apartment complex owners is to have all multi-family and commercial properties brought up to the current plumbing code by 2009. That would require removing older, less efficient plumbing fixtures such as toilets and replacing them with newer, more efficient models. “There is a precedent for this…the Council required a mandatory retrofit with efficient shower heads and faucet aerators in the early 1980’s,” said Gregg. He suggested that the Council set a deadline of December 31, 2009, for installing the newer, more efficient fixtures in line with the current code.

As part of that same recommendation, the task force would like to have existing single-family properties brought up to code as well. But instead of setting a specific date, the recommendation calls for updating the fixtures whenever an existing single-family home is sold to a new owner.

“This would be the seller’s responsibility, since they are easy to identify,” said Gregg. “But they could do a contract with the buyer,” he said, if the buyer was planning to remodel the home after the purchase. That scenario would require posting a completion bond with the city to ensure that the appropriate measures were taken after the sale to install newer, more efficient fixtures. The city would be able to offer an exemption for historic plumbing fixtures in older homes. The program would also require an inspection to verify that the newer fixtures had been installed in homes that did not qualify for an exemption.

“We support this recommendation,” said Colin Clark of the Save Our Springs Alliance. “It seems like a great opportunity for water savings. I’m guessing that because of the absence of any opposition from realtors or the real estate council that they’re OK with putting this requirement on single-family transactions. It would be great if people who have questions or opposition, if they bring those up now.”

Leffingwell agreed. “I also assume there’s absolutely no opposition to this from any part of the homebuilder’s community, so we’ll proceed on that assumption,” he said.

One additional recommendation will be for the Council to update the city’s plumbing code to require the use of high-efficiency toilets in new construction in 2009. “High-efficiency toilets are a relatively new development in the toilet industry,” said Gregg. “We think there’s going to be a relatively significant increase in the number of models available in three years. We think it’s important to put it in the code now with a later effective date to give the suppliers and manufactures a ‘heads up.’ You’ll have a chance down the road to revisit this.”

The recommendations on ways to conserve water indoors are just the first step in the task force’s examination of ways to reduce water usage. The group also intends to review strategies for reducing outdoor consumption and the overall operation of the water utility, including rates for wholesale customers. “I think the really big savings are going to be in outdoor watering,” Leffingwell told In Fact Daily, “so we look forward to the presentation on irrigation.” All of the recommendations will eventually be forwarded to the full City Council, which will have the final vote on which of them to adopt.

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

AMD fined . . . The Texas Ethics Commission has fined AMD $500 for violations of the Texas Election Code related to a campaign finance report the company filed in connection with the May 13 City of Austin Charter election. The company initially filed a report showing it had spent $10,118.95 on unnamed employees and consultants in opposing two SOS-sponsored charter amendments. After Libertarian Arthur DiBianca filed a complaint with the commission, AMD amended its report to show how the money was spent, the name and address of each payee. The Ethics Commission stated that "the violations were neither technical nor de minimis," so the information regarding them was not confidential . . . Kids get training as activists? . . . 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