Council Watch

On Light Rail, Legal Fees and Automobiles

Council Watch
By Doug Potter

The Austin City Council got its opportunity to formally weigh in on the city's still-nascent light rail project this week, approving a resolution supporting the Capital Metro board's vote to submit starter light-rail line plans to the Federal Transit Administration for consideration. In doing so, the council gave one more tiny little push forward for the city's light-rail initiative, which is still teetering toward a likely citizen referendum next spring. Capital Metro General Manager Karen Rae gave the council a presentation of the plan approved by the Cap Metro board earlier in the week and showed a video discussing the results of the Austin Area in Motion (AIM) project, designed to get the transit authority in touch with the wants and needs of ordinary Austinites.

AIM claims to have asked the question, "What are you thinking about the transportation future for the Austin area?" almost 4.7 million times since April, and gotten answers ranging from better parking, to more roads, to -- you guessed it -- light rail. People like the idea of light rail particularly when, as Cap Met claims, the project can be done without raising taxes (assuming the city gets cut into the kitty being divided up in Washington by the Federal Transit Administration). So for now, a critical mass of greater Austin area residents has bought into at least the idea that a(nother) vote on the issue is needed.

Rae emphasized that the blueprint for rail approved last week -- which includes as light rail's first phase a line from McNeil Road in Northwest Austin to downtown -- was just a starter plan that would be subject to serious tweaking by the relevant authorities and, theoretically, by Austin citizens. Rae said Capital Metro is planning to work with residents in East and South Austin over the coming year to determine how they want mass transit to look in their communities. "We basically will be submitting a proposal that will keep a project moving," she said, "that will hopefully get a very solid technical review [by] the federal government."

Council Member and Capital Metro board member Beverly Griffith concurred: "This is just for openers," she said. "We have just gotten our license to try. ... Part of the adventure is going to be a steep learning curve."

Is light rail the ultimate Smart Growth tool? Council Member Gus Garcia said he sees a much grander plan for light rail than just traffic relief. "With light rail, you can actually decide how the city is going to grow, instead of letting somebody else decide for you," said Garcia. "It's an excellent tool for directing development and getting cars off the road ... the first one is more important in my estimation."

Council Member Daryl Slusher noted that association with Capital Metro is no longer the albatross it was when he and Griffith -- as the council rookies -- drew the assignment of serving on the Cap Met Board in 1997. "That was really considered a huge task, and a rather unpleasant one, that we had to undertake. ... I just wanted to say that the agency is now in good hands, under new and sound management, and I think that's been on display here today."

Next stop: The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) board casts its vote on the proposed light rail plan Nov. 8.

Annexation Tweaks

The council also approved over $10 million in infrastructure for neighborhoods brought into the city limits in the Great Annexation Battle of 1997. Water/Wastewater Dept. Director Randy Goss said his department estimated it would spend $41.5 million on the water/wastewater portion of the infrastructure, and that expenditures to this point have reached $33 - 35 million. Goss said the city is on track with its goal of getting the infrastructure improvements done by the end of the year.

Council members asked to see Goss' statement in writing, requesting a report comparing the current financial stats on annexation expenses to the projections laid out before the annexation was carried out in '97 -- the total for which, Garcia said, was estimated at $86 million, including debt service, capital construction costs, and developer reimbursables.

According to City Manager Jesus Garza, the council will like what it sees when the report comes in. Though capital costs of annexations are coming in higher than expected, so are revenues, and reimbursables to developers are coming in a little lower. Overall, Garza said, "This is a positive cash flow for us."

Oh, the Sticker Shock

In an embarrassing moment for the city legal department, the council voted to approve a $227,000 payment to the law firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer and Feld for services rendered in the course of the Lower Colorado River Authority water deal. The payment might not have been a problem had it not been far in excess of the $39,000 the council originally approved for the project. As the avalanche of scrutiny fell on the water deal, however, Akin, Gump was called upon to help out the city staff -- and help, and help, and help.

City Attorney Andy Martin said the overrun was due partly to the fact that he erroneously believed that contracts with several engineering firms were separate from the Akin, Gump contract. As it turned out, he said, they were subcontracts which were counted within Akin, Gump's spending cap. Garza said an administrative process, which would inform the council when contracts are reaching their approved limit, is being developed to avoid a repeat of the debacle. "This is really inexcusable," he said.

Council members wanted to know how it happened that the legal staff didn't notice the meter running on all that high-priced talent. According to City Attorney Martin, he got an estimate from Akin, Gump "very early in the process," but "as we got into the process, for one reason or another, [updates] didn't happen. ... It illustrated a deficiency in my administrative processing system, which I am getting corrected."

Spelman admitted some complicity in the high tab (or maybe he was just reminding us of his extensive probing of the deal?). "I feel a little at a loss," he said, because all the overtime that consultants were putting in on the project was "largely what I was asking to be done. ... I think I was asking more pointed questions than other people were; but I didn't expect it was going to cost $55,000." The effort the city has exerted in making sure the new Austin-Bergstrom International Airport is Austin-centric through and through has been largely successful: Food concessions, retail outlets, even the piped-in music are all about our local color. But council members doubted that such color could be incorporated into the kind of auto and boat displays that are prevalent in other airports, and threatened to put the kibosh on a proposed contract with South Point Auto Plaza to place two cars or boats in the baggage claim section of the new airport.

Council Members Garcia, Spelman, and Griffith all expressed opposition to the item, which would have brought the airport an annual revenue of $78,000 for up to three years. "Why have a display of boats and automobiles at the airport when other things that people want are not there?" Garcia asked. He cited inadequate hours of operation of airport concessions, as well as the lack of vending machines downstairs, as revenue generators he'd rather see at the airport. The Aviation Department's Charles Gates said both improvements were forthcoming.

It was Griffith who gave the most memorable -- and perhaps most honest -- assessment of the opposition's state of mind when she said, "This has a high cheese index." Griffith also said that cars or boats abutting the baggage carousels would be incompatible with the airport that Austinites visually, artistically, and emotionally hold in high regard. "If it were Detroit, it would make sense," she said.

Slusher sided with Griffith, adding, "I just can't bring myself to turn the baggage claim into somewhat of a car lot."

With Council Members Willie Lewis and Jackie Goodman still off on their trip to China, the three members opposed to the contract constituted a majority. Understanding that the item would fail if put to a vote, City Manager Garza offered to withdraw it until the full council was available to consider the item -- and presumably, it had little better than a snowball's chance in hell of passing. (It had barely squeaked by the airport advisory board, by a vote of 5-4, on Oct. 19.)

The item's chilly reception was a setback for Aviation Department staff, who have taken on the noble objective of managing airport advertising themselves -- instead of farming the job out to a national agency, which would likely take a 30% to 40% cut of any revenues earned. Gates said they intended to focus on Central Texas companies and limit advertising to the baggage claim area instead of plastering ads on every available surface, as some airports have done.

Though the revenue would not be dedicated for that purpose, Gates noted that the increased revenue from the auto display "will help fund the arts and the music program at the airport." Over half the airports in the country raise money in this manner, said Gates, and Mueller Airport did, too (advertising at Mueller was contracted out to a national firm, and so decisions on who could advertise were, mercifully perhaps, not up to the council). Gates stuck up for the contract, claiming in vain, "It won't be tacky, it will be something we will be proud of." The item may be revived if Council Members Lewis and Goodman are favorably disposed toward it, and if Spelman and Mayor Watson, who did not speak out against the item, come out in support of it.

This Week in Council: Like last week's meeting, which ended shortly after 6pm, this week's meeting -- Nov. 4 -- may be another snoozer. The dreaded Champion Tract items, which have appeared on the council's agenda for today, are expected to be postponed until Nov. 18. The addition of Champion to that council agenda could make the 18th one of the nastiest council meetings in recent memory, as the still-embattled Gotham condominium is also slated for final council action that day. end story

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Austin City Council, Karen Rae, Capital Metro, Beverly Griffith, Gus Garcia, Daryl Slusher, Jesus Garza, Akin Gump, Austin Bergstrom International Airport, Aviation Department, Gotham, Champion Tract

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