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A Tool for Every Job
[Mayor Watson's transportation plans]
by Robert Bryce, Austin Chronicle, June 16, 2000

Mayor Kirk Watson finally showed everyone his tool box. And it's bulging.
 
For several months, Watson has driven around questions about the city's transportation problems by discussing the need for different "tools in our tool box." In a speech on Monday, Watson rolled out a Sears-catalog-like list of implements that include light rail, more roads, better traffic light synchronization, commuter rail, a light rail link to the new airport, a stronger Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO), and $150million in bonds to help pay for it all.
 
Watson's 70-minute-long speech began with a recitation of the region's transportation woes and a short lecture about the need for Austin's political groups to work together. He advocated building SH 130 to alleviate crowding on I-35, which he called "a disaster," but demanded consensus be built among the city's factions. The Left has to "quit blaming cars" for every environmental malady, and the right must "get over the idea that every road is a quality-of-life enhancement," said Watson.
 
In addition to announcing his support for the various transportation projects, Watson proposed expanding CAMPO to include all of Hays and Williamson counties, and giving the group more power to make decisions about regional transit projects. In particular, he wants the group to evaluate each project in terms of its ability to relieve congestion, increase mobility, and reduce air pollution.
 
While complimenting the improvements being made at Capital Metro, Watson also wants the agency to share some of its revenue on roads and other transit projects. Watson didn't specify how much money the agency should surrender. Nor would he say whether its funding should be used to support commuter rail between Austin and San Antonio. The mayor also insisted that his $150 million bond package, which would be allocated in $15 million chunks over 10 years, would not place a heavy burden on citizens or the city's creditworthiness. The new bonds would cost the average homeowner about $1 a month, he predicted.
 
The luncheon speech, sponsored by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, was another crafty political move by Watson. By favoring virtually all of the city's potential transit projects, Watson risks nothing. He also bulldozed himself firmly into the pragmatic middle of the political spectrum. Toward that end, Watson wasn't subtle in his efforts to sideswipe Reclaim Our Allocated Dollars, an anti-light rail group. The problems of light rail, said Watson, "pale in comparison to the extreme roadway scheme some are proposing." ROAD advocates a citywide road package, including an east-west expressway and an outer dispersal loop. The exact costs of the group's road plans are unknown, but are likely several times higher than the $1 billion figure ROAD is using.
 
After the speech, Jim Skaggs, the president of ROAD, said he liked most of Watson's proposals, including his support for SH 130, but added that the mayor was "just parroting Cap Metro" when it came to light rail. Skaggs said he doesn't believe that Austin should "throw money at projects that won't work and that's light rail."
 
Watson's speech brought an adulatory press release from Get Around Austin, the group of high-tech execs pushing light rail. The group has begun spending more money and is readying a series of TV ads to be broadcast later this year. Meanwhile, the first contribution and expense reports for the pro- and anti-light rail groups will come out in early July --about when the GACC's analysis of light rail will be complete. Whether or not GACC supports the plan may help determine just how big Watson's toolbox gets.

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