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Leffingwell to push for Austin Energy board, urban rail, Innovation district

Wednesday, February 6, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell laid out two major objectives in his annual state of the city speech Tuesday. First, that he will offer a resolution to create an independent governing body for Austin Energy; and he will push for a public vote on urban rail by the end of his term in 2014.


In his fourth such address, Leffingwell also hit familiar notes on the health of the city. To survive, he said, the city will have to continue to change, and he criticized those who resist the idea.


Leffingwell further called for the creation of an “innovation district” for the health care, biotech, and life sciences industries. Tied to the University of Texas’s proposed new medical school, the district would be located along San Jacinto Boulevard in the northeast part of downtown Austin.


Like Kendall Square near MIT in Boston, I think we have a chance to remake one of the most underutilized parts of downtown into a vibrant district of medical research, development, and commercialization enterprise,” Leffingwell said.


Leffingwell’s more concrete goals were straightforward. As for Austin Energy, he announced – in response to a question from the audience — that he, Council Member Bill Spelman, and Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole would offer a resolution on the agenda for the Council’s Feb. 14 meeting. In it, they will instruct City Manager Marc Ott to “draw up plans, and we list a number of criteria that should be in an ordinance that creates an independent governance body for Austin Energy.”


The Mayor noted that the utility is the largest municipally owned utility in the United States without an independently functioning governing body. “We have outgrown the system that we’ve had,” he said.


Leffingwell put his remarks about rail in the broader context of a regional system – a pitch that he and his Council colleagues heard last week (See In Fact Daily, Feb. 4, 2013). “We know that people will ride rail,” he said. “Capital Metro’s Red Line trains are full not only during morning and evening rush hour, but also packed for events like F1 and South by (Southwest). Lone Star Rail – commuter service between Austin and, eventually, San Antonio – is also making steady progress.


“And so Austin needs to step up and do its part on rail – specifically urban rail.”


He continued on to note that he remains “convinced that convinced that an urban rail system in Austin – a safe, reliable way to move people into and around the central business district is real and good change this community needs.”


Leffingwell then committed to “the goal of having a public vote on urban rail before I leave office.”


For Spelman, this was key. “I’m pleased that rail is still part of the discussion, and I’m particularly pleased that we have a firm deadline,” he told In Fact Daily. “By drawing a line in the sand and saying we will have an election while Lee is still mayor that means we’re going to have to have an election in May or November of 2014 that gives the staff a good clear mark to try and hit – and I think they can hit it.”


Spelman also pointed to the proposed “innovation district.” “I think it would be great to get some street life on San Jacinto,” he said. “Medical innovation is – has been for a while – on everybody’s short list of next big thing for Austin’s industry. I think it’s good for us to be moving in that direction and I look forward to seeing what we can do to move that way.”


For his part, Council Member Mike Martinez told In Fact Daily that he “thought it was a great speech.” Martinez noted that urban rail has “been called for before,” adding “we’ve got to get it on the ballot and get it passed.”


“I’m 100 percent supportive of everything I’ve heard,” Martinez continued. “I can’t think of anything that I really disagree with.” That includes, he said, independent governance for Austin Energy.


Cole told In Fact Daily that “we’re very fortunate to live in a city that is prospering so well, especially on economic fronts,” she said. However, Cole noted that Austin continues, “to be challenged with people that are not being able to meet their everyday needs on a monthly basis.”


Cole said that the Mayor “laid out that dilemma in a good form and put a lot of creative initiatives on the table.” For Cole, these included urban rail.


Council Member Laura Morrison echoed those thoughts. “I’m excited about his renewed enthusiasm and leadership he’s talking about in terms of moving us toward rail and some success in the transit department,” she said. “I think that’s absolutely key, and I appreciate that.”


Morrison pointed back to the fact that federal rail funds will be tied to successful affordable housing efforts. That was revealed in a briefing from city transportation department head Robert Spillar last week (See In Fact Daily, Feb. 4, 2013).


“I think that it’s critical to tie those together,” Morrison said. “We need to know precisely what the feds are looking for so we can be sure we can check that box. I think that has an opportunity to make our affordable housing program a lot stronger.”

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