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At forum, most District 7 candidates reject rail

Friday, October 3, 2014 by Gene Davis

Seven of the eight candidates at Thursday’s District 7 City Council forum came out against November’s $600 million bond proposition to help fund a rail initiative. The Monitor co-hosted the forum along with the Austin Chronicle, KUT, KXAN and Univision.

The forum featuring candidates vying to represent the North Austin gave them a chance to share their views on the issue.

Zack Ingraham said the proposed commuter rail urban rail line is too expensive. He believes the city should instead spend money on road improvements.

“I want to see us spending our money in ways that will best take congestion off the road and reduce traffic,” he said.

Melissa Zone, an urban planner, said she opposes the rail initiative because it focuses on projected future development instead of the existing demand.

“We have a large demand for rail, and we’re not addressing that,” she said.

Ed English, a Vietnam veteran and activist in the passage of 10-1, echoed Zone’s comments.

“The priorities for the package are upside-down,” he said.

Jimmy Paver, who has worked for Rep. Lloyd Doggett and Rep. Mark Strama, had similar ideas and said that every successful rail line is built to appease existing demand, which he believes is along Guadalupe and Lamar. He said the city should focus on improving bus routes instead of the proposed rail line.

“We need to focus on things that actually move people at a cost per dollar that saves us money,” he said.

Darryl Wittle, an operating partner of Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar at the Domain, said he doubts that Austin, which has approximately 2,500 people per square mile, is dense enough to support a successful rail line. He said that cities with successful rail lines such as Portland and Minneapolis have at least 5,000 people per square mile.

For Leslie Pool, a Travis County employee who has served on multiple commissions, the proposed rail line’s cost poses a main concern.

“If we put more than a billion dollars of our bond indebtedness into rail, that will absorb the capacity a lot further in the future than I think is really healthy for the community,” she said.

Pete Salazar, an Austin native with experience in the nonprofit sector, said he doesn’t believe the proposed rail line passes the smell test.

“We need to take care of our citizens first, we need to strengthen our bus infrastructure,” he said.

Attorney Jeb Boyt was the sole candidate to come out in favor of the rail bond proposal. He said he was involved in the public process that helped determine the proposed rail route, and that the election is likely the best opportunity for rail in Austin for the foreseeable future.

“It’s been designed to maximize our opportunity for federal funding,” he said. “If we don’t do it now, it may be a very long time before we get another chance.”

Later in the forum, the Council hopefuls weighed in with their thoughts on whether the city should continue giving incentive packages to lure companies to locate in Austin.

Paver said Austin is a “self-perpetuating machine” and that any incentive packages should go to small businesses. Zone shared the same opinion.

Pool said she has campaigned on stopping the city from offering incentives to businesses that would move to Austin regardless.

Salazar added that the incentives that lure big companies to Austin cause the city to lose its soul.

Boyt said the city should use incentive packages sparingly and only target firms that commit to hiring Austinites.

English also said that Austin should sparingly use incentive packages, since “we don’t need to throw log on fire that is exploding currently.”

Ingraham, who got a job with a company that received an incentive package, said that although the incentive packages should always focus on local businesses first, luring out-of-state companies can also be beneficial.

Whittle said while Austinites should be grateful for the growth and development, the city should handle incentive packages on a case-by-case basis.

During other parts of the forum, most candidates listed affordability and traffic as the most pressing issues facing Austin, spoke of the need for District 7 representative to balance the district’s needs with the needs of the entire city, and stressed the need for future water conservation efforts.

The forum ended with seven of the eight candidates diplomatically dodging a question asking which mayoral candidate they support. The eighth, Ingraham, chose mayoral candidate Todd Phelps.

“Who knew that the last question would be the most loaded,” Paver said.

The last day to register to vote is Oct. 6, and early voting begins Oct. 20. The general election will take place Nov. 4.

(This story has been updated to reflect the correct type of proposed rail project. It is an urban or light rail line, not a commuter rail line.)

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