Lee Leffingwell: 'Think Long-Range'
The incumbent mayor defends his record
Austin Chronicle: What do you think are your chief accomplishments? And what are your goals for a new term?
Lee Leffingwell: Well, I think first and foremost has to be – we all have to be proud of the way our economy has performed here in a very difficult period for really the whole world. It's amazing still to me that the city of Austin has stood out so well in all the basic statistics – unemployment, job creation. We continue to grow at about the same pace, and that makes creating jobs even more important. And I think we've done everything carefully and with an eye to the future in doing that, because we don't want to just willy-nilly create jobs. We want to try to target jobs that are good jobs and of course we have that not only responsibility but a mandate, really, that anytime we enter into any kind of agreement with any business that it has to be – absolutely has to be – cash-positive. And every economic agreement we've done has made money for our taxpayers, including the Apple proposal – which is not formalized because the county [Travis County] hasn't done anything and obviously Apple has not accepted it – and I don't know what their reaction would be to whatever negotiations the county goes through. I don't know what their final action is. But assuming that it does, with our proposal we'd make $14.6 million net over the life of the contract. And then that's for 10 years – actually, dating from now, it's 14, because their building won't be built for four years and obviously there are no incentives involved in the construction process. It'll only be after – and that's another facet of our program is that everything has to be performance-based. In other words, every year it has to be evaluated to make sure they're meeting the goals that were set in the terms.
AC: Let's get back to your goals.
LL: Well, obviously that [job creation], and a big part of what I've concentrated on is transportation – how we solve our transportation problems. And I think what's different now from the way it's been in the past is that we've begun to look at transportation in a multimodal way. In other words, it's not just roads anymore, whereas in past, for example, our bond packages have been 90 percent roads; this last one in 2010 was about 56 or 57 percent roads, and the rest of it is other forms of transportation, such as sidewalks, trails, bike facilities. And that's the way I would like to see it continue, is that we continue to focus in a multimodal way. And, as a part of that transportation solution – and there are different solutions depending on what part of town it is, the infrastructure that's there or not there – a part of it has to be improved mass transit.
I'm chair of the Transit Working Group, a CAMPO [Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization] committee that has stakeholders from across the spectrum, and we've talked about mass transit in terms of: Even though people have been focused on urban rail, that's only a part of it. It's also commuter rail we're talking about; it's even inner-city rail, like Lone Star [proposed Austin-San Antonio passenger rail]. And it's how can we make bus rapid transit and express buses more effective, if that's the appropriate solution for the specific corridor, and managed lanes. We're talking about managed lanes. And actually a proposal is already under way to have a managed lane on MoPac – from 183 to the river now, but the plan is to extend that on south out toward Oak Hill. And, you know, all the details of that we can get into if you want an explanation of exactly what that means, but basically it increases the capacity on MoPac without increasing the size of the right-of-way. Another aspect of it is that we'll require the construction of aesthetically pleasing sound walls, which were part of the original plan back in the Seventies but somehow never got built.
AC: How much does the city control and how much the state on that specific issue?
LL: Well, obviously we have a part in it, but we're not the big funder, and we're not the biggest part of it. It's CTRMA [Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority] of course has a lot to say about it, and so does TxDOT [Texas Department of Transportation]. And ultimately CAMPO, because anything that TxDOT does has to be a part of the CAMPO plan.
AC: Any other things you've got your eye on going forward?
LL: Basically, I've taken the view that we have to think long-range; we have to plan long-range. That's why – I know it's controversial – but that's why I supported Water Plant 4 [Water Treatment Plant No. 4], and we can get into that in more detail if you want to .... And that's why we're also taking another look at electric service – the way Austin Energy provides – and making that transition in a reasonable way to more renewable energy, with the absolute caveat that it has to be affordable. We're not just going to go willy-nilly and say – now a lot of folks, particularly at the state level, think our program of 35 percent – our goal of 35 percent by 2020 – is too ambitious and that may be the case, but we're going to have to wait and see about that. And that has to be balanced with our affordability criteria, which means that we have to remain in the bottom 50 percent of the rate structure [in the state], as we are now, no matter what we do. And we've also got additional limitation of limiting the increases in rates to 2 percent a year after this first adjustment.
AC: Do you think you can stay in that bottom 50 percent?
LL: I think we have to. You know, you basically have got three parts of the equation: You've got the 2020 part, you've got the 35 percent part, and the affordability part. So if you can't do all three of those, something has to give.
AC: Any major regrets, or anything in particular you would have done differently?
LL: Well, I think that since we're talking about Austin Energy, certainly, the biomass plant is a decision I would love to have the opportunity to revisit.
AC: Your chief opponent [Brigid Shea] has obviously made a case that that was a really bad mistake, that it was too fast and too much. Do you think it's really hurting matters now that you are looking at the AE rates?
LL: No, that's just a small part of it. And the rationale for it at the time was that the state of Texas reviews that as a renewable form of energy generation. And, you know, statewide goals of 20 percent, that biomass plant would be counted in that part. And the other part of the rationale was: Currently, given the fact that we don't have the capacity to store a lot of energy, you've got to have a certain base of what they call dispatchable energy, which right now means you have to burn something or split some atoms, one of those two things. Those are the two options.
AC: And what makes you think you might have done something different?
LL: Well, first of all, I think we've done so well in the last year. Wind prices, especially, have come way down, and I think potentially we could meet our renewables goal with wind energy and without relying on – that'd be a part of our renewable goal – but also natural gas prices, which are relatively clean. We could have done ... we could possibly make up that [dispatchable] gap there a lot easier with natural gas.