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City likely to help Cap Metro fund studies

Wednesday, June 27, 2018 by Jo Clifton

City Council appears poised to move forward Thursday with approval of an amendment to its agreement with the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority that will help the agency fund preliminary engineering work and environmental analysis on what sorts of projects would be appropriate for Project Connect corridors.

Assistant City Manager Robert Goode explained during the Council work session on Tuesday that the city and Capital Metro would amend their current interlocal agreement to allow the transit agency to keep $6 million of what is called quarter-cent funding. Under the current agreement between the city and Capital Metro, the agency imposes a 1-cent tax on sales within the city and pays Austin 25 percent of that for various transportation projects.

District 1 Council Member Ora Houston and District 8 Council Member Ellen Troxclair did not seem to be on board with the plan, but the rest of Council seemed to support it.

Council adopted a list of projects in early 2016 to be funded by the quarter-cent funds for up to $21.8 million. Of those projects, $15.8 million of the work is already completed or in progress, according to Goode. That leaves $6 million not allocated to specific projects.

Goode said that instead of using the quarter-cent money from Capital Metro, the city could simply issue $6 million in certificates of obligation to do various transportation projects within each Council member’s district. He said Capital Metro has already identified $5 million in its budget, and the additional $6 million would give it enough funding for at least the first year of preliminary engineering work.

Houston pulled the item for discussion, voicing concerns that people in the farthest reaches of her district would not benefit from the transportation money and that there would be no guarantee that Council would approve the replacement funding.

Troxclair said that people in her district would be upset if they learned that money that might have been used for transportation projects in their district was instead used for a rail study. She also objected to issuing debt through the certificates of obligation. “It doesn’t make sense to me,” she said, because people in her district already rejected rail.

Council Member Ann Kitchen, a member of Capital Metro’s board of directors, said the study is not related to the rail project that was turned down by the public. “It’s a preliminary engineering study along the corridors to see what kind of modes might make sense for high-capacity transit. This is not a rail study, nor is it a foregone conclusion that rail would go in any of those places.”

Goode said staff was anticipating that money from the certificates of obligation would be approved during budget adoption. “No Council district would lose those projects that they had anticipated.”

Mayor Steve Adler said, “I hear that, but until the CO’s actually pass, there is some additional uncertainty. Would it be possible in August to remove some of that uncertainty?”

Council Member Delia Garza, who also serves on the board of Capital Metro, expressed concern about what she perceived as a negative view of Capital Metro. She said those not on the inside probably did not understand how hard it was to provide good service for the public given the budget challenges the agency faces.

For example, Garza said, an unfunded mandate from the federal government now requires the agency to have what is called “positive train control.” She said because of a number of rail accidents in other parts of the country, the federal government had required the agency to purchase new engineering services at a cost of about $67 million. Although it was directed to make the purchase, Capital Metro received no extra federal funding for the item.

Council Member Greg Casar said there are some “really, really critical projects here for the quarter-cent funding, and I’m confident, based on what the resolution says, that we’ll get them done. But if we ever want to deal with the issues we’re dealing with, we have to plan for mass transit. The city has to participate in that, and I really appreciate the staff figuring out a way that we can keep doing the quarter-cent projects and do our part in participating in whatever mass transit solutions there might be.”

Casar suggested that staff come up with the way to get approval for changing the agreement that would allow the transit agency to use the $6 million and at the same time approve moving forward with the certificates of obligation that would fund transportation projects in various districts.

Photo by Famartin [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons.

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