Locals Talk Cash in D.C.

Rail, roads, and BCP lead the Austin delegation's list of talking points

A motley crew of business and political honchos returned to Austin last Wednesday from a press-fleshing pilgrimage to Washington, an annual event organized by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. Some two dozen Central Texas leaders – including state Rep. Mike Krusee, City Manager Toby Futrell, Council Member Daryl Slusher, Capital Metro board Chair Lee Walker, county commissioners Karen Sonleitner and Gerald Daugherty, and business big wheels Pike Powers and Pete Winstead – met with Texas delegates and government bureaucrats to discuss roads, rail, economic development, health care issues, and the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge.

A critical component of all of these discussions was, of course, a well-rehearsed plea for federal funding. As in past trips to the Beltway, Central Texas transportation issues – freight and passenger rail, toll roads, new roads in general – outweighed the other talking points. Front and center is the ongoing negotiation with Union Pacific to move its freight trains off a heavily traveled rail line that runs from Taylor to San Marcos (see "Austin@Large, p.15). The railway company is asking $500 million to get the job done, but who has $500 million these days? Rail advocates are eyeing the line as possible commuter rail, and Elizabeth Christian, chair of the chamber's transportation committee, presented the pitch to Washington officials.

As it happens, Congress was expected to pass its massive new transportation bill this week. "Of course, it's late in the game for this year's bill," Christian said by phone last week from D.C., shortly after a luncheon meeting with Central Texas U.S. Reps. Lloyd Doggett, Lamar Smith, and John Carter. "But it's early in the game for next year's funding, so we're getting a jump on things." The local group also met with Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison – the latter a longtime booster of rail transit. "Everyone has been courteous and interested," Christian said, adding that no one made any promises. "Don't we wish."

The out-of-towners also dropped in on former Capital Metro manager Karen Rae, now the director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation. And they took a ride on the Virginia Railway Express, which runs from the suburbs to downtown Washington. "We see this as a good opportunity to do research on rail," Christian said, noting the awesome experience of riding on a rail that parallels a highway that resembles a parking lot during commuter rush hours.

Also during the trip, Sonleitner and Daugherty chatted up Interior Department officials in hopes of scoring additional dollars for the vast Balcones Canyonlands reserve, a breeding habitat for the golden-cheeked warbler and the black-capped vireo. Much of the preserve is located in the western Travis Co. precinct represented by Daugherty, the lone Republican on the Commissioners Court. The preserve recently added 100 additional acres to its portfolio of Hill Country real estate, with funding secured by Hutchison.

This year's visiting delegation represented a hodgepodge of personalities and political interests, and that was no accident. "We've got a good cross-section of elected officials and community leaders," the chamber's Sandra Hentges said before the group's departure. "When you have a lot of disparate people together like this, you have a great opportunity for them to interact with one another – many for the first time," she said. "This will lay the groundwork for other opportunities for them to work together.

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