Naked City

Light Rail Later?

Back atcha, Central Texas! Your money, that is, as the Capital Metro board of directors -- in one of its first official actions since light rail lost oh-so-narrowly at the polls -- discussed on Dec. 8 and voted on Dec. 10 to take the quarter-cent of sales tax it had been stowing aside for rail and, starting this fiscal year, give it back to the communities from whence it came.

In practical terms, that means the city of Austin -- which generates 97% of the sales tax revenue collected by Cap Met -- is about $30 million a year richer, while other communities like Manor, Lago Vista, and Leander will receive much smaller (but, to them, huge) windfalls. Of course, this money will still be collected by the transit authority and could only be spent on transportation and mobility projects such as Cap Met would fund itself.

But, the board pointed out, since they bounced it back to the cities and counties, the quarter-cent can now be directed to transportation projects that voters did bless, as they did when they passed road-bond packages in Austin, Travis County, and Williamson County in November. More importantly, that devilish quarter-cent, in one neat and tidy act, has been voided as a political issue. As Cap Met board chair Lee Walker put it, "We've had this recent election, and the voters said no to the proposition we put forward, and that decision is something we respect."

As the Capital Metro board gingerly stepped back into public view for the first time since Nov. 7, it was clear that dealing with the quarter-cent was its most critical political challenge. Throughout the contentious campaign, and for years before that, rail detractors made clear that their real target was Cap Met's fat coffers, fed by the one-cent sales tax it's been authorized to collect since its inception in 1986.

The antis' ideal, as proposed most often by their fearless leader Gerald Daugherty, would be for Cap Metro to have its taxing authority rolled back to one half-cent, with the other half-cent going to the roads we so obviously (in their view) need more. This would likely involve a vote of the people, and most certainly a vote of the Legislature, which has dirtied its hands with Cap Met before and surely would again if the transit authority did not take the proper steps.

While state Rep. Terry Keel announced his gleeful support for rolling Cap Met back to a half-cent -- and, while we're on the subject, calling for the immediate resignation of Cap Met General Manager Karen Rae -- the real legislative power on this issue has moved substantially into Cap Met's corner. That would be Rep. Mike Krusee, who says that since the election was so close, as long as Capital Metro takes some measures to fund needed mobility projects with its now-surplus funds, the authority's belt shouldn't be permanently tightened.

Capital Metro has often questioned whether it could run the current bus system with only a half-cent of tax revenue, let alone expand the system, as it wants to do in lieu of near-term rail. But the authority has also shown its willingness, if not its full intention, to bring rail back to the voters, though not necessarily as early as November 2001.

The only serious questioning of the give-back-the-quarter-cent plan (officially proposed by Lago Vista mayor pro tem Fred Harless) came from Austin's former mayor pro tem John Trevino, who in the Dec. 8 "workshop" laid out his fear that, without the readily available quarter-cent, Cap Met's light rail proposal would look less attractive to federal funders. (Which it would, too, if the Legislature took it away permanently.) As discussed, the quarter-cent rebate would last, at most, three years, after which the rebated tax revenue, when added to the $91 million Cap Met has already pledged out of its reserves for regional mobility projects (primarily HOV lanes and incident-management systems), would add up to the $200 million Cap Met was "challenged" to pony up by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce as a corollary to their endorsement of light rail.

Further giveaways of the reserves -- of which Cap Met has, at present, about $78 million -- were nixed by the board, which cited the need to pay for Capital Metro's own needs first, especially as the agency prepares to adopt its "five-year plan" for substantially enhanced bus service. This plan, already in progress, has been amplified to make up for light rail's absence.

That is, if it indeed remains absent. The very first thing the Cap Met board did after returning from post-election exile was contemplate whether the agency should continue work on the preliminary engineering/environmental impact study (PE/EIS) that wasn't finished in time to answer voter questions in the fall. Not a soul emerged to oppose finishing the PE/EIS -- especially since, if it were killed, Cap Met would have to pay the Feds back the grant money that's already been spent, which would be three times as expensive.

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