Byrd flies to Austin to talk up El Paso
by Ben Wright
Posted on March 6, 2009
“El Paso is experiencing somewhat of a renewal,” said city Rep. Susie Byrd yesterday testifying on behalf of the city in front of the House Urban Affairs committee.
You can watch the committee hearing here. (Byrd starts speaks from 0:04 to 0:36)Byrd gave the committee a general overview of the cities needs. Transit, BRAC and the violence in Mexico featured.
Byrd said the global economic crisis had hit Mexico hard, which was affecting El Paso. The devaluing of the peso had helped lead to a significant dip in bridge revenues and sales tax, as shoppers were not coming over in their usual numbers.
Byrd said that drug related violence in Juarez was a "significant threat to our security and our economy,” but cautioned lawmakers to act “carefully and deliberately” and "seek the council of those most directly impacted” as a response is formulated.
At the end of the presentation, the committee asked Byrd to elaborate on the needs for a measured response from Austin to the border violence:
“We do not want an over-reaction…Our community is so closely knit with our sister city of Juarez,” said Byrd adding that the “law enforcement approach in Juarez” has only “escalated the violence.”
“I am fearful that a military response might not get us what we want as a community or as a nation,” said Byrd, asking for a more “measured, thoughtful and deliberate response that takes into consideration our views.”
In particular Byrd mentioned two things: Better drug prevention at home and more help with screening southbound cross-border traffic.
“How are we in a very thoughtful way really reducing drug consumption in the United States? Are we putting enough resources into drug rehabilitation?” asked Byrd.
Regarding southbound traffic, Byrd said the city needed more federal and state dollars to combat guns and “heavy artillery” making its way from America into Mexico through El Paso.
“We could use more help in that regard” said Byrd.
Fort Bliss: Good and bad
“We continue to defy the national economy and we are sort of insulated in some regard because of the growth at Fort Bliss,” said Byrd.
BRAC represents an “unprecedented opportunity” to create a more hi-tech, hi-skilled and diverse economy, said Byrd, who also stressed the difficulties growth would bring: By 2012, there will be 37,000 soldiers in El Paso, a total population impact of 68,000 when soldiers' families are included.
“We are growing in ways that we have never grown before,” said Byrd. BRAC-related growth meant El Paso would need an extra 615 doctors and 2,000 nurses by 2017, a hard task considering El Paso is “the least staffed city in the United States,” she said.
BRAC growth might also drive up rents as well, said Byrd. El Paso was the poorest large city in American, with 189,000 people living below the poverty level. Those factors keep rents relatively low.
However, BRAC-related growth could push rates up 1) by disrupting the supply/demand ratio, and 2) by upping the market rate.
Byrd explained that on average about 3,500 new single family units were built in El Paso per year, but Fort bliss has also told the city it needs about 8,000 multi-family units in the next three years as they expect a majority soldiers to rent rather than buy.
Furthermore, soldiers were coming to El Paso with stipends for accommodation that were well above the market rate (thus pushing it up.)
“That’s going to place El Paso families at risk,” said Byrd, adding that the city wants families to have to spend no more than 30 percent of their income on accommodation.
El Paso in renewal
When asked to elaborate on her opening assertion that El Paso was in renewal, Byrd explained how in 1950, El Paso had a per capita income of 102 percent of the national average. However, due to civic business and elected leadership focusing on low-wage industry, she said, El Paso's per capita income had fallen to 58 percent of the national average. The city’s reputation as the cheap labor capitol of America had “harmed us in many ways,” asserted Byrd.
But now, El Paso’s image was changing, as the city addressed its image and infrastructure needs. Byrd spoke enthusiastically about the medical school and “robust investment” Downtown.
Though suffering the effects of the global economic crisis, El Paso has lower unemployment and foreclosure rates than the national average, and was the 3rd best city for job growth in 2008, said Byrd.
“You're beginning to see the fruits of so much labor.. We’ve really worked hard over the last five or six years to determine a different path for our community. We no longer want to be known as the low wage capitol of the United States…We no longer want to be known for a lack of confidence in our city,” said Byrd who believes the city is making “great progress” in that regard.
Byrd re-iterated the city’s desire, set forth in its state legislative agenda, to be the Southwest’s least car dependent city.
El Paso wanted to develop a “first class mass transit system,” by creating a competitive alternative to cars. This would feature dedicated lanes for buses on roads: “light rail without the rail” (and thus much cheaper) as Byrd put it.
One thing the city was looking at were ways to pull down state and federal dollars usually reserved for highway investment and put them toward transit, said Byrd.
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