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McCracken, Leffingwell spar over use of airport funds for rail system

Wednesday, October 29, 2008 by Mark Richardson

Council Members Brewster McCracken and Lee Leffingwell, both possible candidates for Mayor next year, engaged in a verbal sparring Tuesday during the Council’s Audit and Finance Committee meeting. The two openly disagreed over the use of funds from Austin Bergstrom International Airport as a means of financing a light rail system.


The exchange came during a report on financing strategies for building a downtown circulator system utilizing streetcars, light rail cars or a combination of the two. When Transportation Director Rob Spillar mentioned airport funds as one means of financing part of the system, Leffingwell spoke up.


“We’ve heard about the use of airport funds before, and I think we’ve taken a long look at them and determined that it’s something that can’t be done,” Leffingwell said. “I think we need to take it off the table as an option.”


McCracken, the source of much of the previous discussion of airport funds, quickly responded, saying he begged to differ.


“I don’t believe we should be taking them off the table,” McCracken said. “There may be some options where we could use airport funds to complete a portion of rail line or some other portion. I think we need to consider all the options.”


Leffingwell, who was a commercial pilot for many years, countered that federal laws on spending airport funds are very strict.


“Airport funds are for projects on the airport grounds,” he said. “You can’t spend them for projects outside of the airport. They must be spent on projects that benefit the airport.”


McCracken, who strongly supports building the downtown circulator system with a spur to the airport, stood his ground.


“Yes, they certainly should be used to build whatever part of the system is inside the airport,” he said. “But I believe they could be used to connect the airport to an outside transportation system. I can see the airport funding, say, the last one and one-half miles from the airport to Riverside Drive.”


There were a few more words before Leffingwell put an exclamation point on the exchange.


“Well, I don’t believe airport funds can be used for this. I think its illegal, and I’m going to oppose it,” he said.


Council Member Sheryl Cole, chair of the committee, finally got a word in edgewise to restore order, and Council Member Mike Martinez quipped, “Madam Chair, do we need to put these two in time out?”


The report, requested by the committee, looked at both federal and local funding options for a downtown streetcar or light rail. It also looked at case studies from eight cities around the country.


Spillar, who previously worked as Director of Traffic Management for the City of Seattle, discussed the relative merits of local and federal funding and ultimately recommended a mixture of both. Among the methods discussed were local option sales or gas tax; general obligation bonds; rental car tax; local transit tax; transit agency funding; and a fee from a partnership with UT or the state.


He also listed a number of other possible methods, including special taxing districts; hotel/motel tax; public private partnerships, parking revenue and others.


Spillar said public-private partnerships, while sometimes tricky, could be a way to get a project started and move more quickly than waiting for federal funds. He said such projects could often take between four and eight years to complete.


The committee members took no action on the report.

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