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Tuesday, July 10, 2018 by Caleb Pritchard

City to help Cap Metro fund studies

City Council at its June 28 meeting voted to use money the city collected from the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority last decade to help pay for the transit agency’s ongoing Project Connect initiative.

The move will reallocate $6 million from the quarter-cent fund to preliminary engineering work for the high-capacity transit planning effort.

Established through an interlocal agreement between the city and agency, the quarter-cent fund reserved one-fourth of Capital Metro’s 1-cent sales tax revenues collected between the years 2001 and 2004 for city-led transportation projects.

The agreement netted $139.4 million over its lifetime. A Council action in 2015 divided the $21.7 million still on the ledger into 10 equal parts to be spent across each Council district. Only $6 million from the original fund remains unallocated.

Assistant City Manager Robert Goode anticipated that Council members would be concerned about losing money previously reserved for district-specific projects. He explained that the resolution at hand on Thursday would direct City Manager Spencer Cronk to come up with alternative sources to replace the $6 million and bring back proposals at Council’s Aug. 9 meeting. Furthermore, the reallocation to Capital Metro would not go through until that alternative funding is approved.

Council Member Ora Houston echoed the concerns she raised during Council’s work session two days earlier.

“I need to have some certainty that this money will be available, and that will not happen until we come back on Aug. 9,” said Houston. “I don’t understand the urgency because it is my understanding that Capital Metro does not even have any plans to implement Project Connect even after the design stage is over.”

Council Member Pio Renteria, who also sits on the Capital Metro board of directors, posited that voters signaled their great demand for transportation solutions when they overwhelmingly supported 2016’s historic $720 million mobility bond.

“We need an alternative way to get around. And we need to fix this problem that we’re having. And we need to work with everyone,” Renteria said.

Council Member Alison Alter cited a resolution passed by the Capital Metro Board of Directors earlier this year asking Council to add $15 million for Project Connect preliminary engineering to this November’s bond election. In April, Alter voiced her discomfort with using city money on what’s touted as a regional project, but at the June 28 meeting she said she would prefer to put the question before voters rather than shuffle around the quarter-cent funds.

However, waiting for a November vote could trip up Project Connect’s timeline, according to Council Member Ann Kitchen, also an agency board member.

Project Connect is currently in its third and final phase as planners are putting together a strategy to fund a system plan estimated to cost as much as $8 billion to build over three decades. That work is expected to wrap up in September.

“We need to move forward with this as quickly as possible,” Kitchen declared. “And I think in the order of magnitude about what we’re talking about with mass transit and its benefits for the entire community, it’s very important that we have the flexibility to move forward with it.”

Houston remained defiantly unconvinced and said that the resolution before Council required too much faith and lacked a guarantee that the quarter-cent funds would be replaced. At Mayor Steve Adler’s prodding, however, Assistant City Manager Goode pointed out that the resolution directly states that the change to the interlocal agreement between the city and agency cannot take effect until the replacement funding is secured.

Adler divided the four-clause resolution into three separate votes. The first vote weighed the first two clauses that contained the directions to Cronk to renegotiate the interlocal agreement and search for replacement funds. That vote won on a 7-4 split with Council Member Greg Casar, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and Council Member Delia Garza joining Adler, Kitchen, Pool, and Garza in support of it.

The third and fourth clauses were aimed at speeding up the implementation of projects paid for by the quarter-cent fund by removing the requirements that each project be approved by both the full Council and the Capital Metro board.

The proposal to give each member discretion to move forward on the projects in his or her district failed on a 5-6 vote, with Council Member Ellen Troxclair joining Alter, Kitchen, Houston, and Renteria in support. The final clause passed unanimously.

Photo by cweyant from Syracuse, United States (Pile of Pennies 4) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Capital Metro: The city’s urban transportation system.

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