Tuesday, September 19, 2000 by

Save Barton Creek votes to send

Austin environmentalists and city officials will meet with Clinton Administration officials in Washington on September 28 to discuss water quality, the Barton Springs salamander and the impact of the Longhorn Pipeline on the Edwards Aquifer. The Save Barton Creek Association(SBCA) has voted to send two emissaries to the meeting. Just who will go has not yet been decided.

Whoever goes, be it City Council Members, members of the SBCA, or both, they plan to meet with George Frampton, director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. In addition, members may meet with Mike McCabe, deputy director of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Nancy McFadden, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).

On Sept. 7, Frampton signed a letter to the EPA and DOT, which recommended a finding of no significant impact and finalizing the current environmental assessment, rather than ordering a full environmental impact statement as local officials had requested. According to Frampton, consultation between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's (USFWS), Longhorn and the other federal agencies “can be brought to completion in the next four to six weeks.”

Matt Lechner, an aquatic biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Austin, has been instrumental in negotiating with the pipeline officials to diminish negative environmental impact over the aquifer. As a result, the company has proposed rebuilding 19 miles of the 50-year old line over the Barton Creek watershed in his jurisdiction.

“The proposal they’ve put together is very good,” he said, “They are going head and shoulders above anyone else,” he added, referring to other pipelines in the area. “Everything that Longhorn is doing, they are doing voluntarily.”

“In my opinion,” Lechner said, “Longhorn should move the pipeline or start (refurbishing it) at the Pedernales and go through Bastrop.” But that’s not what Longhorn has in mind. “Pipelines are the safest way to transport gas,” he concedes.

He said his part of the process is finished and it’s now up to higher officials to determine the outcome. “At the end of the day, what does Austin get out of this? A pipeline. It may be the safest pipeline in the world, but it’s still a risk.”

Longhorn’s proposal to install brand new pipeline in the 19-mile section was hard won, but nevertheless, he added, “by winning everything we could win, what do we get? A pipeline.”

Matt Lechner, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in Austin, said Monday that the U.S. Corps of Engineers—which must approve the Lower Colorado River Authority’s (LCRA) proposed water line to Hays County—had responded “quickly and enthusiastically” to a letter enlisting the Corps’s assistance in protecting the Barton Springs salamander. Lechner spoke at a meeting of the Save Barton Creek Association.

David Frederick, Lechner’s supervisor, sent the letter to the Corps, and to the Dallas office of the Environmental Protection Agency, on Sept.5. The contents of the letter, which warned that “current and future threats to water quality at Barton Springs may be jeopardizing the continued existence of the salamander,” were widely disseminated.

One of the greatest threats to the salamander is development that may lead to additional pollution of Barton Springs, which is that endangered species’ sole habitat. Lechner said the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission (TNRCC) should take a more active role in protecting the Barton Springs watershed.

“It really boils down to a regional plan,” Lechner said. If an additional 20,000 people move onto the aquifer without sufficient regulation of gas stations and other types of development, the watershed will become more polluted and the salamander may become extinct. Frederick has called TNRCC’s water quality regulations “inadequate.” TNRCC has responded that its rules are “a perfect example of how states can be leaders in taking care of their own problems,” according to the Austin American-Statesman.

On the other hand, Lechner said, “Hays County has come miles and miles,” in environmental attitude. “They really do want to do the right thing—because the people spoke. It’s very clear that the people who live there now don’t want an urban setting.”

Lechner said he believes that a plan to take zoning authority, in the extra-territorial jurisdictions of major urban cities, and give that power to the counties has “a good chance” of being approved by the Texas Legislature. The idea was floated at SBCA by Gary Bradley a few weeks ago. (See In Fact Daily, Aug. 16,2000)

Craig Smith, president of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District board, attended Monday’s meeting. He told the group that the newly-formed Texas Citizens’ Coalition, which has been meeting in San Marcos, had responded very negatively to the idea that counties be given zoning authority. That group includes concerned citizens from Bastrop and Kendall counties, as well as Hays and Travis.

Lechner said his office has informed the Texas Department of Transportation that the state agency must consult with USF&W on the southern extension of SH 45. He said the federal agency has already determined that TxDOT should “capture at least two inches of stormwater and treat it to a non-degradation standard.”

Tame demonstrations from both sides of the light rail issue provided some excitement outside the Capital Metro building during the meeting where the Cap Metro board finally called a vote for Nov. 7.

Voters in the Capital Metro service area will be asked to consider a proposed rail line that will ultimately stretch 52 miles and cost almost $2 billion. The first 20-mile starter line would extend on a north-south axis from Howard Lane to Ben White Boulevard. An east-west line would run from Martin Luther King Boulevard down to the East 4th and East 5th street corridor and jog over to downtown Austin. The ballot states that the rail line would require no additional taxes and will be paid for with local and federal funds.

Putting light rail on the ballot was one of Board Chair Lee Walker' s two goals when he joined the Cap Metro board almost four years ago. The other was cleaning up the beleaguered transit agency. But the road to the light rail ballot has been a lot tougher than Walker, a Hyde Park resident and UT business professor, anticipated. Not the least of Walker's problems was that after the Metro clean-up in 1997, the new board inherited a light rail plan that would never get federal transportation funds.

"We inherited a plan from the old board that was the so-called Red Line. It was based exclusively on the railroad right-of-way that Cap Metro owned," Walker said. "My question at that time was that this line didn't connect the dots in terms of the University or the Capitol or even the major ridership corridors. When we went up to Washington to the Federal Transit Administration, they told us that if we persisted in the Red Line plan that they would not recommend. It could work, but not as our starter line."

So Capital Metro's new board scrapped the plan and started over. Today's board is solidly behind the light rail proposal, Walker said. It was obvious from yesterday's demonstrations of both pro- and anti-rail groups, however, that local opinion is still split on the issue.

Pro-rail forces appear to be ahead in both fund-raising and visibility at this point in the light rail campaign. Rail proponents are a loose coalition of at least five local groups: Get Austin Moving, Get Around Austin, Light Rail Now, Austin Choices for Transportation and even Campus Campaign for the Environment.

Get Austin Moving and Get Around Austin are bankrolling much of the effort. Barbara Rush of Get Austin Moving estimates the tech-backed Get Around Austin has raised $450,000 and spent $300,000 to date. Get Austin Moving has raised $300,000 and spent $200,000. The latest evidence of those expenditures is a commercial featuring Tour De France winner Lance Armstrong that began running yesterday and neatly coincides with Armstrong's appearance in the Summer Olympics in Sydney.

Austin Choices for Transportation—fed by volunteers from a number of grassroots environmental organizations—has provided additional muscle for the rail coalition. Organizer David Foster said the group started canvassing on the issue as early as last summer. ACT is already conducting phone banks and passing out flyers and will soon be distributing yard signs to local neighborhoods. He said the light rail vote is not, as some opponents have painted it, a choice between light rail and roads on the November ballot. Austinites can have improved roads and improved sidewalks, as well as a rail system, Foster said.

Glenn Gadbois of Light Rail Now said he supports Capital Metro's proposal, but he adds that even supporters of light rail are looking at the plans with a critical eye. Gadbois' own concerns include protecting East Austin so that the rail line "doesn't do any more to the area than the market's already going to do." And like many opponents to light rail, Gadbois is concerned about neighborhood preservation. Neighborhoods initially balked at light rail, said Gadbois, when city planners talked about the high density that often occurs along light rail lines. City planners eventually backed off those statements.

"That's a huge issue for neighborhoods," Gadbois admitted. "Neighborhoods want development that's appropriate for their neighborhood. They don't want another Gotham."

The disruption of rail is not as large an issue as many neighborhoods may have feared, Gadbois said. The proposed rail line, Gadbois said, does a good job of avoiding established development and is well aligned with the projected ridership into downtown. Development along the lines is likely to be limited, he said.

Austin City Council Member Daryl Slusher stressed the positive development that transit stations could bring. Helpful services—such as child-care centers and housing for the elderly —can cluster near the higher-traffic transit stations. "We can turn this into a great thing for the city," he said.

The vote on light rail passed 5-0, with Travis County Commissioner Margaret Gomez and City Council Member Beverly Griffith missing from the meeting. Gomez was ill. Griffith is out of town.

The Austin Neighborhoods Council has yet to issue its position on light rail. Most consider the density and development that rail corridors can bring—wanted and unwanted—to be a chief issue in the light rail debate. Former Council Member Max Nofziger of rail opponents, ROAD (Reclaim Our Allocated Dollars), said that the light rail line will crush the distinctive businesses on South Congress.

Progressive inner-city neighborhoods will not support light rail, promised Nofziger. Critics of the light rail plan said the light rail line would cost the equivalent of six or seven airports but provide no significant relief to area roadways. It simply won't solve the traffic problems that Austin faces, said critics.

"It's not high-tech. It's not high speed. If this was a high-speed train I wouldn't be standing here today," said opponent J.J. Hinterreiter. "Instead, what we have is the same trolley system that we replaced with buses more than 50 years ago in this city."

Before the vote on the ballot was taken, the Capital Metro board did agree to a dozen measures that are intended to mitigate the impact of construction and operation of a rail line. Those pledges included:

• Creating business advisory teams along main commercial streets such as South Congress and " The Drag" to provide a forum for affected businesses to address their problems.

• Developing a Main Street program, which would use staff to help promote economic vitality in targeted areas.

• Maintaining access to and helping with marketing of affected businesses during construction.

• Adding financial incentives for contractors to limit construction noise, control litter, maintain utilities and avoid any unnecessary delays on construction.

The mitigation pledges made no difference to Nofziger. "We're on the brink of an election," Nofziger said. "Capital Metro will say anything."

©2000 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Policy meeting…The LCRA’s board of directors will meet Wednesday in Round Top for the group’s annual policy meeting. One of the topics to be discussed and approved is the bylaws for the LCRA Wholesale Energy Service Corp., which was formed in response to deregulation. The board will also consider revised policies on ethics, property rights and economic development… Anti-Bush rally… Texas Environmental Democrats are urging like-minded Austinites to join them at Wooldridge Park, across from the courthouse on Guadalupe, Saturday from noon to 2 p.m. Supporters of the Democratic ticket are being urged to carry signs about Gov. George Bush’s ‘true’ record. Following the rally, the group plans to stroll to the Governor’s Mansion with the “banners and signs so that the Governor will know we won’t be taking it anymore.” Call 210-225-7236 if you have questions… More amenities, please… Capital Metro approved a $91.6 million operating budget last night, which still allows the transit agency to put away $120 million for mass transit improvements before the end of the 2001 fiscal year. Board member and Council Member Daryl Slusher asked that the agency look into more passenger amenities. Capital Metro General Manager Karen Rae assured Slusher the agency had more than 160 bus stop projects in the works. Those projects are being contracted out of house and the transit agency is seeking additional federal dollars for more improvements, Rae said.

© 2000 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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