The Traffic Report
Rail rolling forward, but toll roads slowing
Alone among Texas transit authorities, Cap Metro is required to seek voter approval before it can build a passenger rail system, a legacy of the agency's bad old days in the mid-Nineties. Having narrowly lost a vote in 2000 to build a billion-dollar light rail system, the transit authority has opted this time around for what may be the smallest-scale system possible, running on existing track already owned by Cap Metro (often dubbed the "Red Line") from Leander to the Austin Convention Center, at an estimated cost of $60 million, as part of the agency's All Systems Go! plan including new and expanded bus services as well as rail. At its Aug. 30 meeting, the Cap Metro board included in the "notice of election" for the Nov. 2 referendum the caveat that the Red Line "commuter rail urban service" as opposed to future "regional" rail service, including Austin-to-San Antonio rail on the current Union Pacific (MoPac) tracks, along with future service on the abandoned MoKan right-of-way east of I-35 would be built "with no new or increased taxes and no issuance of bonds."
This week, on Wednesday as the Chronicle went to press, saw the kickoff of the official pro-rail election drive with the long-haul name of the "Steering Committee for Urban Commuter Rail: New Ways to Connect Campaign" under the aegis of former Mayor Kirk Watson, who cites most of the salient facts of All Systems Go! in describing the message. "This election offers an opportunity to use existing rail line to create new alternatives for people to connect throughout the city," he says. "It's the first step in a long-term transit vision for Central Texas."
Watson elaborates that the emphasis both by the campaign and by Cap Metro itself on "existing track" means "there's going to be less interference and disruption for existing roads and businesses," that being a major talking point of foes who helped defeat the 2000 referendum. "My guess and it's only a guess is that part of the opposition [this time] will be about whether [this plan] does enough."
He adds, though, that the conservative ambitions of All Systems Go! mean that "the opposition, by necessity, will be somewhat limited. We've already seen a lot of people rally around it; there's a whole lot of momentum behind this thing because it meets specific needs." The steering committee includes "a broad coalition" of civic leaders, including groups that are already on record endorsing Capital Metro's proposal, ranging from the Real Estate Council of Austin and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce (of which Watson is chair-elect) to Liveable City, Clean Water Action, Austin Metro Trails and Greenways, and the Texas Community Project.
Capital Metro's All Systems Go! plan and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority's toll road plan have often been presented, if not actually conceived, as integrated components of one big transportation package. But on the highway side of the transportation network, small but discernible cracks have appeared in the concrete, among the coalition of local leaders who, as members of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization's Transportation Policy Board, approved the CTRMA's controversial $2.2 billion plan in July.
The most visible defector has been Council Member Brewster McCracken, who along with Mayor Will Wynn and Council Member Danny Thomas voted with the majority in the 16-7 CAMPO vote; all three are now subjects of a recall effort currently in the petition-drive stage.
Last week, McCracken released a statement claiming that his "yes" vote was cast with an eye on ensuring funding for Central Texas from the Texas Transportation Commission, which has convinced metro areas to plan for toll roads if they want state money for their highways. Now, McCracken says, he supports amending the CTRMA plan to remove highway segments that are currently under construction, "which means they're paid for," he says. These include the controversial William Cannon bridge on South MoPac, parts of U.S. 183 East and Texas 71 East, and perhaps also U.S. 290 West through the Y in Oak Hill. McCracken plans to, if possible, introduce an amendment to this effect at the CAMPO board's next meeting Sept. 13; it's still unclear whether CAMPO can actually take a vote next week, or whether it needs to schedule a public hearing in October and a vote in November. "Either way," McCracken says, "there'll be something on next week's agenda."
While such an amendment responds nicely to the "double taxation" argument that's motivated the recall effort, McCracken has not exactly gotten a hero's reception, either from conservative opponents of tolls or from progressive opponents of new roads. Among the tartest critics has been his own colleague Daryl Slusher, the only council member on CAMPO to vote against the toll plan, who in a letter to his CAMPO peers Friday wrote, "In announcing his change in position, Council Member McCracken said that a 'no' vote on July 12 (which seven of us took) was 'irresponsible.' ... To me what's irresponsible here is to accept public funds from another level of government based on one premise, then once those funds are in hand, renege on the principles under which that money was taken."
That assumes that state funding for Central Texas highways has in fact been sewn up, which House Transportation Committee Chair (and CAMPO board member) Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, says is hardly certain. However, pressure from elsewhere in state government or in the next session of the Legislature may also lead the TTC to a change of heart and strategy. And McCracken argues that, if anything, it's been the state operating under false pretenses.
"We were presented with what we were told was a take-it-or-leave-it plan," he says. "Then, at the June [CAMPO] meeting, we were told that we could make amendments, but that the plan needed to have all these roads." Partly, this was defined as an equity issue distributing both the benefits and the costs of the toll road plan across the region. More directly, though, the CTRMA plan's financials were premised on having early toll revenue from high-traffic, nearer-to-completion segments like the William Cannon bridge which is currently slated to start carrying tolls as soon as next spring to service bonds that would pay for construction elsewhere in the network.
"We were never asking for money to build these roads, because they were already paid for," says McCracken, referring to the under-construction segments he wants to take out of the plan. "It would have been a false pretense to ask the state for money to pay for roads" meaning other, not "paid for" segments of the CTRMA plan "and then say, 'We changed our minds, and we're not tolling them.' That's not what I'm suggesting.
"The mayor and I have been up-front with the RMA since two weeks after the vote," continues McCracken, referring to a July 27 letter from him and Wynn outlining the conditions behind their votes on the toll road plan. "My ongoing support has always been tied to what's going on with other communities and with the state. Now, state officials" including U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, and, less directly, Gov. Rick Perry "are telling us that we shouldn't be tolling roads that are already paid for. The facts on the ground have changed."
Those same specifics are all cited by Slusher, who calls for going further on Sept. 13 and simply rescinding CAMPO's July vote which would leave in place the toll roads approved before that point, including SH 130, the north and southeast segments of SH 45, the northern extension of MoPac, and the U.S. 183-A bypass that the CTRMA was originally created to build. He suggests the CTRMA and CAMPO, as part of the latter's ongoing long-range planning effort, instead work out a new, smaller version of the toll road plan one that, by his statement's implication at least, would not countenance a Loop 360 expansion and would strip the frontage roads added by CAMPO to SH 45's southwest segment.
Whether those aquifer-friendly measures would pass muster with Slusher's conservative allies on the toll road question remains to be seen. Without addressing those specifics, however, one of those allies, state Rep. Terry Keel, offered immediate support of Slusher's proposal. His constituents' voices "have been largely ignored by the CAMPO process," Keel wrote, complaining that "some CAMPO elected officials from Travis County" read: state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, who chairs the CAMPO board "essentially allowed out-of-county officials" read: Krusee "to be a deciding factor in forcing a plan on Travis County citizens. ... Slusher is right when he says that anything short of a reversal of the whole toll road vote itself will fail to effect a change in the plan sufficient to make it a good plan. Rejection of the entire CAMPO toll road plan is what my constituents want and deserve."