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Mayor: Let's pool money for roads
By Kelly Daniel, Austin American-Statesman Staff
Tuesday, June 13, 2000
Central Texas should create a regional source of money for transportation projects, paying as a group for everything from new highways to clearing accidents from roads, Austin Mayor Kirk Watson said Monday.
 
The City of Austin would put $150 million over the next 10 years into such a resource, but every jurisdiction in Travis, Williamson and Hays counties should contribute, too, the mayor said in a speech describing his vision for transportation through 2010.
 
"We cannot and should not look to any one jurisdiction to carry the load," Watson said. "I'm counting -- I'm counting --on other jurisdictions to come up with money if we do."
 
How that money would be collected and how it would be used are details the mayor wants the community to begin deciding. Watson said it makes sense to turn to the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, which includes Austin, Travis County, Cedar Park, Round Rock and portions of Williamson and Hays counties.
 
The mayor's plan is an attempt to speed up road building and other transportation fixes, a process that is often stuck in gridlock created by questions of jurisdiction and not enough money. Among other things, the money could be used on the proposed Texas 130 and improvements to U.S. 290 West into Hays County or on alternatives to driving.
 
"It is a wonderful idea, but I think there has got to be some safeguards on how it occurs," said Sheila Holbrook-White, executive director of Texas Citizen Action, a consumer group.
 
Capital Metro also ought to use its 1-cent sales tax to pay for more things than bus service or light rail, the mayor said. The agency already is planning to spend money on high-occupancy-vehicle lanes, but Watson is pushing for it to do even more with roads.
 
Capital Metro board members have said they'd consider such proposals.
 
If the City Council agrees to Watson's proposal, the $150 million could be on the November ballot as a bond package that will be linked with Capital Metro's light-rail referendum, or the money could be paid partly in cash and partly in bonds.
 
Watson said most of the $150 million would be used as matching dollars for state or federal money for projects, especially new or expanded roads. The bond money would be committed as a local match to the Texas Transportation Commission in 2001, when regional leaders ask for state money for projects to be built in 2005. Each year, the region would commit more local money to its state requests.
 
Some of the $150 million also would go toward buying the land needed to build roads or rail. Watson did not specify dollar amounts for either category.
 
The city, Capital Metro, the planning group and other local governments have committed about $35 million in local matching dollars over the last two years to help pay for projects they are requesting from the state. Since the state typically looks more favorably on projects that come with local dollars, the matching money helps generate more overall money to spend on transportation.
 
Those projects are included in a 25-year transportation plan that includes items for the entire region. Watson's regional money proposal would cover spending on projects in that 2025 plan, which was adopted Monday night by the planning group.
 
"If we do this right, it isn't just $15 million a year," he said.
 
The city already has voter approval to issue $152 million in bonds for transportation projects through 2005, out of the 1998 bond election.
 
If new bonds are issued, the tax rate would remain within the 1 cent approved in 1998, so it would not create a tax increase, Watson said. The new bonds would extend the life of that cent, which was to end by 2005.
 
Reaction to the mayor's speech included questions on why he didn't mention any improvements for Interstate 35 -- there wasn't time, Watson said afterward -- and encouragement about his challenge for the region to stop politicking about transportation. The mayor spoke to community and business leaders who paid to attend a Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce luncheon.
 
Watson's 70-minute speech touched on every aspect of transportation from sidewalks to traffic technology, highways and all forms of rail, and included his contention that light rail is better than the "extreme roadway scheme that some are suggesting."
 
That plan, voiced by the Reclaim Our Allocated Dollars group that is opposing Capital Metro's light-rail plans, calls for building an outer loop around Austin, building a major east-west road and improving other roads in the next 10 years, and then considering light rail.
 
Gerald Daugherty, founder of ROAD, questioned the mayor after his speech on why light rail is worthwhile if it only takes 2 percent of the cars off the road, as some studies have concluded. Watson countered by pointing out the proposed Texas 130 toll road is projected to take only 5 percent of traffic off I-35 -- but the city still needs both.
 
"This is a diverse community. We must create a diversity of options for people," Watson said.
 
The mayor also suggested the city explore ways to use e-commerce know-how to let residents do governmental business over the Internet. That way, he said, they don't have to drive into downtown.
 
"By the way, we're going to name that e-government after me. We'll call it 'e-go,' " Watson quipped.
 

You may contact Kelly Daniel at kdaniel@statesman.com or 445-3618. 





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