Thursday, October 20, 2005

" I don't think we should be foisting costs on drivers to make a New York bond house happy."

Council Notes

Costello Tolls Loudly

The Austin Chronicle
Copyright 2005

City Council Member Raul Alvarez spoke at a mock groundbreaking for the MACC; the real groundbreaking has been repeatedly by John Anderson

Today, council votes to approve a study of the Capitol Area Metropolitan Planning Organization's "Mobility 2030 Plan." While you're absolved if you're unacquainted with the plan, you've undoubtedly heard of its problem child: toll roads. In this case, the toll roads under discussion are the plan's "Phase 2" ones, proposed to run along stretches of U.S. 183, 290, Loop 360, SH 71, and SH 45.

City Council optimistically gave a finish date of July for the study (which was called for in March), yet it was repeatedly pushed back as other stakeholders were sought to add their input (and funding). Today, council approves an interlocal agreement between Hays, Williamson, and Travis Counties; the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority; Round Rock; and Austin, which picks up $144,000 of the $354,000 study tab. "I believe [the agreement] will work, and I'm gonna fight hard to make sure that it will," said Council Member Brewster McCracken.

McCracken, who, along with Betty Dunkerley, sits on the study's steering committee, also noted, however, that public incredulity concerning the plan's tolls is one of the big reasons for the study. "My big skepticism is, just in reviewing their proposals, these [toll roads] don't make sense from a financial standpoint," said McCracken, who characterized the plan's tolls as costing as much as seven times the national average per mile. "Getting agreement on the numbers is a good first step," he said. "But I don't think we should be foisting costs on drivers to make a New York bond house happy."

While McCracken is certainly toll road weary, he lacks the pathological toll hatred embodied by Sal Costello, whose Austin Toll Party made its hairsplitting, ball-busting distrust of the study known early on. Dismayed by the study's delay, Costello charges the committee has been "hijacked" by pro-toll forces, telling the online newsletter In Fact Daily, "The committee, virtually a mini-CAMPO, can decide not to accept the study results … How can the toll authority [CTRMA] review themselves?"

McCracken said the board can't "deep-six" its own findings. "Sal Costello and I, and [committee member and Austin state Rep.] Mark Strama, and everyone who has skepticism … we're all going to have access to the report." McCracken attributes Costello's animosity to a possible misunderstanding, saying his fears "would be a legitimate concern if one of the purposes of the steering committee was decision making," an authority he says the committee doesn't have. "We have not had the public process begin yet," he added, saying the controversy is over "a hypothetical process until it starts." McCracken imagines initial organizational meetings beginning in November, and study consultants from Boston-based CRA International coming to Austin in December.

Thursday also sees action on the long-delayed Mexican American Cultural Center, namely approval of additional funds and a building contract. A concrete slab south of Cesar Chavez on River Street, temporarily being used as a skatepark, is the only part of the MACC that exists so far, even though $10.9 million in construction dollars was approved by voters in 1998. Donato Rodriguez, chair of the city's MACC Board, said, "The city has been deferring release of funds until a better economic year." Council Member Raul Alvarez added that the MACC's big delay came in September 2003, when during the budget downturn, major facility projects were held for two years. Groundbreaking was delayed again this month, until November, as the city found itself scrambling for another $3 million. Alvarez said the escalating cost of concrete and steel, intrinsic to the MACC's design, as well as a lack of competitive bids, led to the increase.

However, the MACC now has high hopes of a $1.5 million grant from the Department of Commerce's Economic Development Administration. Combined with $1.57 million from Parks and Rec, the money is finally available, in Alvarez's words, "to deliver the whole package." Or at least the first phase – construction has been divvied into an ambitious triptych, with phase one being construction of the center and plaza, as well as landscaping and parking; phase two including further completion of the main building, along with a 300-seat theatre; and phase three calling for a 500-seat theatre, covered parking, and a possible additional center.

On rumors of MACC petitioning for additional funds in the 2006 bond election, Alvarez was less than forthcoming, saying simply that "it's hard to predict what will be part of the bond items"; he closed, however, saying "the MACC board and other community stakeholders support additional funds for the center."

Also of note, during the oftentimes cringe-inducing Citizen Communications period, Austin's Home Depot Corner Committee is scheduled to make its case. A battle is brewing nationwide over the home improvement giant's responsibility for the numerous day laborers gravitating to its stores in search of work from contractors and other shoppers. In Austin, the Home Depot at I-35 and St. John's, a popular job-hunting spot for day laborers, is at the center of a debate over whether to ban from the premises the would-be workers, most of them immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries, or to provide a designated, sheltered area for them. The store has said the issue is a national store policy beyond its control.

Last but not least, we have to correct an error from last week, saying a forthcoming FEMA payment of approximately $5.4 million went toward reimbursement of $1 million in lost revenue from convention cancellations and $1.2 million in previously budgeted employee costs. Unfortunately, the funds don't. Minus these two expenses, the city is only in the hole by $350,000. As advertised, however, this morning council approves $5,475,240 in FEMA funds by way of the DPS.

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