EMPTY BUSES VS. EMPTY CARS: Capital Metro's Board of Directors voted Monday to increase the transit authority's sales tax share from 3/4cents to 1cents on the dollar. Last month when the Board announced its intention to vote on the tax increase, it caught many Austinites by surprise, including local politicians like Travis County Attorney Ken Oden and State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos. Oden, who wanted Capital Metro's unused 1/4cents taxing power to create a crime prevention district, told the Board that it had violated the Open Meetings Act by failing to post meeting notices at the County Courthouse. Barrientos threatened to attach a last-minute rider to a Senate bill that would require a state audit of Capital Metro. Mayor Bruce Todd and Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire told Capital Metro to tie the tax increase to voter approval of a bond election for light rail. Board members responded that the tax increase would be needed even without construction of light rail because of the increasing number of functions that the transit authority is assuming under Austin's recently adopted 25-year transportation plan. The plan calls for transit to pay for half of the $7.5 billion to be spent on Austin's transportation system over the next quarter century, with Capital Metro funding everything from sidewalks and bicycle improvements to vanpools, high occupancy vehicle lanes, park and ride lots, and traffic light synchronization. Meanwhile, bills working their way through Congress are virtually certain to reduce Capital Metro's federal funding by millions of dollars over the next few years. Capital Metro General Manager Michael Bolton said that lack of funding for transit has left Austin with a 1960s bus system while the population booms and traffic congestion mounts.
On June 5, opponents and supporters of the tax increase clashed for three hours at a public hearing before the Capital Metro Board. Opponents accused the Board of trying to pass the tax increase too soon, without proper public input. Supporters responded that no one complained about lack of public input when the Board voted to decrease Capitol Metro's tax share from 1cents to the current 3/4cents at the peak of the recession in 1989, resulting in revenue loss of $129 million for the transit authority.
Former mayoral candidate James Cooley told the Board that neither the public nor public officials supported the tax increase. "We don't have a 1960s bus system," said Cooley, "we have a Sixties mentality of throwing money at problems." Longtime Capitol Metro foe Gerald Daugherty said that transit only survives through huge government subsidies, and buses remain empty while 93% of Austinites continue to use their cars. Even the Los Angeles earthquake only produced a 2% switch to transit, said Daugherty, and that only lasted until freeways were rebuilt. Transit supporters responded that tax money subsidizes motorists more than transit. One citizen, Eric Blodgett, told the board, "I'm sick of breathing fumes from hundreds of empty automobiles," referring to statistics that show that over 80% of Austin's moving cars are occupied by only one person at any given time.
In countering the "empty bus" argument, transit supporters said that bus ridership increased from 15,000 daily in 1985 to 65,000 in 1995, while opponents replied that bus ridership has actually declined since it peaked in 1990. Some transit supporters acknowledge that the city is likely to see both more empty buses and more empty cars as long as transit consists of buses using a roadway system designed primarily for automobiles. Only a fixed-guideway system like light rail will give transit the time and convenience edge necessary for it to compete with the automobile, they say. - N.E.
TAKE BACK AUSTIN FROM WHOM?: With the city council giving away tax abatements, spending $13 million on a baseball stadium, $100,000 installment on San Francisco consultants to analyze downtown redevelopment plans, considering a $30 million retrofit of Palmer Auditorium, and preparing to help build and manage a new recreation center in East Austin, it's not surprising that a new political group has formed in town to try to head off the council's spending spree. The new fiscal conservative coalition, called Take Back Austin, is led by Wayne Ahart with Brokers National Life Assurance Co., and (semi) retired attorney Johnnie B. Rogers, who both say they're fed up with financial irresponsibility in city government. Since both Ahart and Rogers live outside the city limits, neither can legally vote in the city election they are attempting to influence. Ahart resides in Lakeway, while Rogers resides in Onion Creek; both areas are within Austin's five-mile extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ). Despite this, Rogers explains that the group is meant to be a "citywide and countywide organization, because it's getting to be more and more where the ETJ people are impacted on these things just as much as anybody else." Ahart and Rogers have targeted three councilmembers - Max Nofziger, Brigid Shea, and Jackie Goodman - for replacement, since all three are up for reelection next spring.
In an interview last week with Chronicle senior writer Daryl Slusher on his regular KOOP radio talk show (6pm, Thursdays), Rogers and Ahart contended that they would like to see seven like-minded, fiscally responsible councilmembers after this next city election. Both Ahart and Rogers said that Shea, Goodman, Nofziger, and fellow Councilmember Gus Garcia vote as a block to approve most spending issues and that as a result, Garcia will be the group's next target when he comes up for reelection in 1997. Asked by Slusher who they like on the council, Ahart replied, "We like what's left: Eric Mitchell, Ronney Reynolds, and the mayor." Ahart was quick to add that the three councilmembers they do support have cast votes they don't like either, "but they're quality people and they're right most of the time."
Out of the five spending projects Ahart and Rogers say they oppose - the baseball stadium, Palmer Auditorium, the Save Our Springs ordinance legal defense, the consultants, and the East Austin recreation center - Reynolds and Todd supported all five, and Mitchell supported four. On the other hand, Shea and Nofziger objected to the fee for the downtown consultants, Shea called for a public vote on the baseball funding, and she also questioned the financial data supporting the East Austin recreation center.
During the radio interview, Rogers and Ahart rescinded their objections to the cost for the East Austin center, saying that they support more infrastructure for the Eastside. Ahart went as far to try to blame the current council for the Austin's racial problems - "Before this group of council people ever came to town, it didn't used to be East Austin versus West Austin; it just used to be Austin." The two insisted on this theory even after Slusher pointed out official city plans from the 1920s that called for the relocation of African-Americans and Hispanics to East Austin.
Ahart and Rogers both deny that they're attacking just the three councilmembers up for reelection, and contend that all the councilmembers are at fault for going overboard with new, expensive projects. On the radio program, Ahart said he agrees with Slusher "100%" that there is a connection between fiscal responsibility and environmental responsibility. But regarding the Circle C "Bradleyville bill," Ahart called the Austin-bashing bills from this legislative session "council-correcting," and said that he "doesn't quarrel with [them]." As for explaining their own reasons for wanting to participate in "council-correcting," or council-replacing, both Ahart and Rogers have difficulty pinpointing exactly what they dislike about those they have targeted. Asked for specific examples of what he didn't like about Goodman's voting record, Rogers answered that he "didn't know Jackie Goodman. I have nothing against her. We think her motives are sincere, but we don't like her philosphy and we have the general feeling that she hasn't rendered good government."
The group has struck a nerve with the fiscal responsibility message - Ahart says 400 people have signed up so far to join their cause since their full-page advertisement came out in the daily newspaper on June 4. Both he and Rogers hope to gather together 30,000-40,000 citizens who will help elect the council candidates the group supports. But while the fiscal message is popular and meritous, the group may face difficulty trying to tell the difference between councilmembers they like and don't like. In the end, the voting records for all seven look awfully similar. - L.C.B.
WHERE TO BE GREEN: Newcomers to the Austin area could get a quick primer in local geography, hydrology, and environmental politics before they buy or build in sensitive watershed areas, thanks to a new map from the Hill Country Foundation.
Unveiled last Tuesday, the 24 x 36-inch map shows the Austin area from Georgetown to Kyle, and from the Hamilton pool to Manor. On the front, the map includes all roads, three sections of the Edwards Aquifer recharge and contributing zones, school districts, major employers, endangered species habitat, the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan preserve land, 100-year flood plains and tracts of native prairie and woodlands east of I-35.
On the back, the map includes photos of endangered species, maps of the Barton Springs watershed, the area covered by Austin's Save Our Springs (SOS) ordinance, and the entire Edwards Aquifer. There's a short passage on the natural history of the area, and an explanation of how the aquifer works. There's also a section on "living lightly" on the aquifer, for people who decide to live there anyway.
"One of the reasons we're doing this is, in the first place, nobody has ever put all this information together in one place before," says Will Andrews of the Foundation. Andrews says the group will sell the map for $3.50, and plans to try to distribute it through the Chamber of Commerce, local real estate agents, and members of Another Business for Barton Springs. Currently, the map is available only through the Hill Country Foundation. For more information, call 478-5743. -