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At Travis County, CTRMA’s park-and-ride proposal hits another pothole

Wednesday, December 21, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

The Travis County Commissioners Court on Tuesday pitched a second strike against an elaborate plan to build eight new transit-oriented parking lots along Central Texas toll roads.

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt’s decision to defer action on the proposal put forward by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority comes a week after Williamson County Judge Dan Gattis declined to let his commissioners vote on the measure.

In both cases, the courts were asked to consider turning over to the CTRMA millions of dollars in federal Qualified Environmental Conservation bond allocations. And in both cases, opposition sprang forth over issues outside of the strict scope of that request.

In Williamson County, two Republican commissioners argued that transit projects should be exclusively funded by the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority. However, in Travis County, Democratic Commissioner Brigid Shea put her foot down against four proposed park-and-ride locations on environmentally sensitive land in Southwest Austin.

“My desire is that any projects we do not cause further harm to the environment, and particularly (do) not contribute to the harm of Barton Springs,” Shea said.

Last Friday, Shea sent an email outlining her concerns to top officials with the CTRMA, Capital Metro and the Save Our Springs Alliance, as well as several City Council members and Mayor Steve Adler.

In that message, which she shared with the Austin Monitor, Shea questioned whether the plan merited immediate action. She also asked whether the CTRMA had considered using existing, underused parking lots and whether existing bus ridership in the area is robust enough to support four entire park-and-rides.

Shea closed her email by asserting, “I remain a huge advocate for transit and the necessary infrastructure, but not at the expense of the environment.”

In his reply, CTRMA Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein wrote that his agency is exploring the use of existing parking lots. However, he pointed out that that kind of arrangement leaves potential park-and-rides at the mercy of mercurial landowners who could terminate leases in favor of higher and better uses.

“There is no one-size-fits-all, and we will almost certainly end up with a mix of new and ‘existing’ facilities,” Heiligenstein wrote. “One of the locations that we are looking at closely includes the existing parking lots at the ACC Pinnacle Campus and as the study progresses, we will be looking at more locations similar to this.”

As for whether existing transportation ridership in Southwest Austin justifies future expansion, Heiligenstein said the numbers today “are irrelevant.” He offered that the park-and-rides will be built to complement future express lanes that will accommodate buses.

“Most transportation professionals will tell you that with express lanes a whole new world of transit opens up in lanes that actually move folks,” wrote Heiligenstein.

On Tuesday, Shea clearly remained unconvinced. While reconfirming her support for park-and-rides and transit in principle as well as the use of the QEC bonds to fund the endeavor, she insisted on hearing more about both the alternative locations the CTRMA considered and ridership projections.

“I have not had a great history of success with the CTRMA on things related to environmental protection and clarity and transparency on their expenditure of funds, so I’m not willing to go ahead today with this,” Shea said.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who has developed a reputation for being less than friendly to public transit projects, concurred with Shea’s desire to take more time to understand the issue. The court’s sole Republican echoed his colleagues in Williamson County by suggesting that Capital Metro should use its own sales tax and farebox revenues to build park-and-rides, a point that Commissioner Margaret Gómez also agreed with.

Eckhardt countered both Gómez and Daugherty by reading aloud the state statute that defines the powers of regional mobility authorities. She noted that RMAs are conferred with the ability to finance and construct transportation projects, “including a transit system, a parking area structure or facility, or collection devices for parking fees.”

(In a statement to the Monitor, a Capital Metro spokeswoman also defended the proposed arrangement, saying, “Absent partnerships or new funding sources, every dollar that Capital Metro spends building park-and-rides is one less dollar we can spend on moving people.”)

Despite Eckhardt’s best efforts, fresh opposition to the proposal popped up during public testimony. Save Our Springs Executive Director Bill Bunch hammered the CTRMA for proposing that six of the eight park-and-rides be located along MoPac Expressway or to the west of it rather than “where we want the growth to go in: towards the east and away from our drinking water supply watersheds.”

Austin Neighborhoods Council President David King took a softer approach and simply endorsed allowing more time for the Commissioners Court and Council to evaluate the park-and-ride proposal.

The Texas Bond Review Board is in charge of dispensing the QEC bonds, which were created by Congress in 2008. Travis County’s share amounts to $2.6 million and Williamson County’s share is $3.8 million, while the city of Austin can claim up to $7.9 million. The CTRMA is also seeking from the board an extra $38 million in unallocated bonds.

Bill Chapman, the authority’s chief financial officer, warned the court on Tuesday against dithering. He suggested that another county or city could apply for the unallocated bonds or that the federal Department of Energy under the new administration could claw the money back. “It’s just the sooner we can do it, the better off we are,” Chapman said.

Photo by radcliffe dacanay made available through a Creative Commons license

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