The money, if approved, would be used to build six elementary schools (including three in Southwest Austin), two middle schools (one in Southwest Austin, one in South Austin), and one high school in South Austin. Scores of renovations, improvements, expansions, and wing additions would be done on every campus in the district. The main objective, says committee chair Mel Waxler, is to achieve equity of resources at every campus.
Waxler says that the bond committee will not issue its report in the form of a dollar-amount recommendation; rather, the group will merely tell the board what they have determined are the district's needs and the costs associated with those needs. Another citizens' committee will be formed to ensure that the funds are properly spent to address the needs, Waxler says.
Opposition to a bond issuance, common in any school district, could prove even more acrimonious in AISD. African-American and Hispanic parents and community leaders, upset and outraged over the district's curtailing of its Priority Schools program for schools with high proportions of low-income children, have vowed to scuttle the bond proposal.
But Waxler doesn't buy it. "Surely there is another way to promote important issues," he argues. The bonds, used in the manner the committee recommends, could be the "ultimate equalizer" for many of those communities, he adds.
Some trustees disagree. "When you build three schools in southwest Austin, and then don't replace a Hispanic school that was built in 1936 for segregation purposes [Zavala Elementary], in my mind, that's not equity," says trustee Diana Casteñeda. She adds that she is deeply concerned that since four of the schools may be located near the Circle C subdivision, developer Gary Bradley may be able to detach them from AISD and start another school district, taking the new, AISD taxpayer-funded schools with him. - R.A. AREA CITIZENS COMPETE FOR DWINDLING TRANSPORTATION FUNDS: It was standing room only at the Austin Transportation Study (ATS) public hearing on June 12 as Austinites crowded the chamber to request funding for their preferred transportation projects. The 17-member committee, which includes elected officials representing Austin and Travis and Williamson Counties, allocates federal, state, and local funds for transportation projects. Forty-six citizens addressed the ATS in a four-hour meeting designed to gather public input on the Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) which funds projects for the next three fiscal years.
ATS Chair, Texas Senator Gonzalo Barrientos set the tone for much of the discussion that followed by noting that the projects that the ATS has given priority to, such as bicycle, pedestrian, and congestion management, never seem to get underway. Citizens representing neighborhoods along MoPac agreed with Barrientos, complaining that their requests for noise barriers on MoPac and I-35 have been delayed for years. "The noise is driving us crazy," says Ian Inglis of the West Austin Neighborhood Group. "It's getting to where it is almost around the clock, and we're getting more and more commuters from the north and south ends of MoPac." Several citizens also spoke about safety concerns increasing as people drive faster and faster on MoPac.
Several members of the ROUTE (Rethinking Our Urban Transportation Environment) coalition criticized the ATS for continuing to emphasize funding for suburban road projects even though its 25-year transportation plan calls for a compact city. The committee's head planner, Mike Aulick, replied that 15% of the annual $7.8 million in federal funds for local projects is allocated to bicycle and pedestrian projects. But ROUTE members noted that these funds, while under direct control of the ATS, constitute only a fraction of federal transportation funds spent in the area.
The majority of projects using federal money are initiated by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), with the approval of the ATS. Most of this money is currently going for construction of the US 290 and US 183 freeways. ROUTE's Roger Baker said that federal transportation funds will be declining significantly in the next few years, and accused transportation planners of delaying alternative projects while TxDOT uses Austin's last federal dollars building a highway over the Edwards Aquifer to satisfy growth projections promoted by developers.
Transit activist David Dobbs responded to comments that the completion of the US 183 freeway will ease traffic problems - especially in the traffic-choked Koenig Lane neighborhood - by pointing out that 183 will actually have increased capacity from the current 130,000 cars daily to 180,000. Also, he says, projections suggest that US 290's capacity will already be exceeded by the time it is complete. "We have it in our heads that we can enlarge roads and solve traffic problems," said Dobbs, "but if you think the traffic is not going through the neighborhoods, you're mistaken."
Lakeway, Cedar Park, and Round Rock presented requests for seats on the ATS committee. Rollingwood, Georgetown, and Jonestown have also indicated that they want to be represented. Committee members say they will consider appointing a subcommittee to study the requests and also to study creation of a citizens' advisory group.
The ATS will continue its public hearing on the TIP at its next meeting on July 10, before considering adoption of a final three-year plan on August 14. Citizens can send written comments to ATS, PO Box 1088-Municipal Annex, Austin, TX 78767. - N.E.
AIRPORT AUTHORITY: One of the more interesting bills brought to the Lege this session that didn't pass concerned the establishment of a Travis County Airport Authority Board to oversee Mueller Airport - and ultimately the new airport at Bergstrom. HB 3133 was sponsored by Dawnna Dukes (D-Austin), and reportedly was based on a bill carried in the previous session by Dukes' predecessor, Wilhemina Delco.
Delco's bill also failed, but that didn't stop Dukes during this session, and she says it won't stop her from bringing the bill back again next session, if she's reelected. "The City of Austin has finally decided that they don't need to run the hospital or the public utility system. This legislation falls right in line with the city's planning and political philosophy," said Dukes in a statement to the Chronicle. The bill would have set up a seven-member governance board to run the airport. While the board would have similar powers to the city council, it wouldn't be allowed to levy taxes. City Councilmember Ronney Reynolds is in agreement with Dukes on the bill, saying he thinks it would be "a good vehicle for the city to run the airport."
Support for the bill was not unanimous among city staffers, mainly due to the governance structure proposed. Assistant City Attorney Charles Brothers said he was worried that the bill might have given away too much city control of the airport: Board members would either have been elected by Travis County voters or appointed by the County Commissioners Court, and giving up representative powers to the county makes city officials very nervous. City Aviation Department Director Charles Gates says he had suggested a more equitable arrangement: that three board members be appointed by the city, three by the county, and one by the governor, with members having staggered terms. "If the bill had passed," Gates adds, "the county would set a referendum and the voters would decide by simple majority [whether] to establish an authority."
Gates says that while he doesn't think the city ever established an official position on the bill, "I don't believe there was any support... I think the legislation as proposed had some flaws and needed some work."
City Councilmember Brigid Shea saw the Airport Authority as a way to allow the city to put some of the revenue from Mueller, and eventually Bergstrom, back into the city's general fund. There may also have been some profit for city coffers from land sales around the new airport. "Some of the land [at Bergstrom] is highway frontage and possibly valuable," argues Shea. Under the current financial structure, all profits generated at Mueller (and eventually at Bergstrom), are required by the FAA to be held in an airport fund, and spent strictly on airport-related improvements or expenses.
But, says Shea, "there wasn't a whole lot of discussion about [the bill]" amongst her fellow councilmembers. Whatever the case, the bill died quietly as time ran out on this session. With Bergstrom looming larger on the horizon, expect this to be a much bigger issue the next time around, if Dukes is reelected. - D.C.