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Candidates talk transportation at mayoral forum

Thursday, August 28, 2014 by Kara Nuzback

Though Austin residents can only vote for one Council member to represent their geographic district this Election Day, everyone in the city gets a say in who becomes the next mayor. Five of those in the running showed up for the Civic Summit Mayoral Candidate Forum, Wednesday, presented by KLRU, Austin’s PBS station and the Urban Land Institute.

Moderator Jennifer Stayton, host of KUT’s Morning Edition, grilled candidates Todd Phelps, Mike Martinez, Randall Stephens, Sheryl Cole and Steve Adler about how they would govern the city, focusing specifically on what each candidate would do to alleviate Austin’s traffic congestion.

In its bond proposal, City Council is proposing $1 billion in transportation improvements — $400 million would go to roadway improvements and $600 million would fund a 9.5-mile urban rail line. Voters will approve or reject the funding on Election Day as Proposition 1.

Stayton asked the candidates if they supported Prop. 1 rail funding, what they thought about criticisms of the project, such as its cost and location, and how they would solve the city’s traffic woes.

Council Member Martinez, who is also board chair of Capital Metro, said, “My transportation record is unmatched by any candidate in this race.”

He said he supports Prop. 1 and that it is the first step in a 50-year plan to address traffic flow in Austin.

“Public transportation is a key component of affordability,” he said.

He noted the Federal Transportation Administration would match the $600 million the city would use to build the rail.

“To me, that’s an opportunity,” he said.

Mayor Pro Tem Cole said traffic is a regional issue, not just a citywide issue, and she would work to obtain state and federal money for transportation projects.

Cole also said she supports Prop. 1, calling it imperative to move the project forward. She said despite criticisms, a citizens committee recommended the route, which would run from East Riverside Drive to Austin Community College Highland Campus in North Austin, with stops at the convention center, the Capitol and University of Texas.

Adler, an attorney who served as chief of staff and general counsel for state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh (D-El Paso), said he supports the rail, but he is frustrated that concerns about its cost and location still exist. He blamed the current Council for not properly addressing residents’ concerns before moving the initiative forward.

“I share the frustration that at this point in the process, those questions still remain,” he said.

Adler proposed behavioral changes to ease traffic in the city, such as supporting companies that allow employees to telecommute, and staggering normal business hours to cut back on rush hour traffic.

Stephens, an aircraft mechanic and Web entrepreneur, said the city should offer incentives to businesses that develop on the edges of the city, rather than downtown.

He said Prop. 1 would cost the city too much money, and less expensive improvements could help traffic flow.

“I’m predicting it won’t pass,” he said of Prop. 1. “It will overextend our borrowing … our ability to raise capital in the next 10 years.”

Stephens said he is not entirely against a rail line, but “It needs to start at the edge of or outside the city.”

Phelps, an Austin musician and businessman, also said he would not support Prop. 1. He says rising property taxes have pushed Austin natives out of the city, and the expensive rail project would only add to the taxpayers’ burden. He also said he agrees with many city residents who say the rail line should run through the crowded Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.

Phelps said encouraging rideshare companies like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar to do business in the city would be a more affordable way to alleviate traffic congestion.

“I’m heavy on rideshare,” he said.

He accused Martinez of not allowing rideshare companies to flourish, saying Martinez receives campaign funding from cab companies.

“He’s not allowing them to do business fairly,” Phelps said of Martinez.

In his retort, Martinez did not deny receiving campaign funds from taxi companies, but he argued corporate ride-sharing negatively affects affordability, another key issue at the forum.

When Stayton asked how each candidate would close the growing economic gap in Austin, Phelps said, if elected, he would propose property tax exemptions, saying residents who have lived in Austin “a very long time” need specialized relief. He added he would make sure the tax burden was not passed along to renters, who make up much of Austin’s art and music scene.

Phelps made it a point to set himself apart from the other candidates as an Austin native, who has lived in and is familiar with many of the city’s districts.

He said his goal as mayor would be to preserve Austin and protect its longtime residents from being priced out.

Martinez said he has fought to defend the middle class in his eight years on City Council, including raising homestead exemptions.

Martinez said if elected mayor, he would work to ensure corporations in Austin pay their employees a living wage and fight for “equal pay for equal work.”

“Middle class families need a strong voice at City Hall,” Martinez said.

Adler proposed changing the city’s property tax system and bringing jobs that are more middle class into Austin to avoid letting the city become the next San Francisco, where the median price for a single-family home is $1 million.

“Affordability in this city is a crisis,” Adler said. “We need to start delivering relief.”

Adler’s message throughout the debate was clear: The status quo in Austin is not sustainable.

“I’m concerned about this city,” he said. “We can use this election to choose a new way forward.”

Stephens said he would increase affordability by looking for ways to cut the cost of city services without reducing services or amenities.

Stephens, a resident of Avery Ranch on the Northern edges of Austin, kept noting that encouraging commercial development on the outskirts of the city would cure congestion at the city center.

Cole said she would look to partner with other government entities and nonprofits to collaborate on ways to make the city an affordable place to live.

Throughout the debate, Cole emphasized how she would work with Austin’s grass roots organizations to enhance business, technology, environmental initiatives and arts in the city.

“We must elect a mayor who understands the value of bringing people together,” she said.

The deadline to register to vote is Monday, Oct. 6. Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 4.

The taped forum will air at 8 p.m. tonight on KLRU-TV.

(Photo by Sam Butler, KLRU-TV)


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