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Three commissions say City should

Monday, January 22, 2001 by

Beef up transportation planning

City must give CAMPO direction, not vice versa

Three city commissions have recommended that the City of Austin take the driver’s seat in transportation planning, instead of reacting to proposals from the Capital Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO). The Environmental Board (EB), Urban Transportation Commission (UTC) and the Planning Commission ( PC) have each adopted proposals that call on the City Council to take a more proactive approach to transportation planning.

Planning Commissioner Robin Cravey explained that city employees already work with CAMPO staff to some extent. But what members of the commissions want is to see city staff developing a plan, getting feedback from boards and commissions, and final adoption by the City Council—before CAMPO starts to review it. As it is now, he said, “The city is in the position of coming back later and trying to tell CAMPO what they wanted after CAMPO’s already done a plan.”

“ The current system—under which the City updates its Austin Metropolitan Area Transportation Plan (AMATP) only after CAMPO has drafted its 25-year plan . . .undermines the City’s ability to conduct sound transportation/land use planning,” the Planning Commission said in its recommendations.

No environmental criteria

Ramon Alvarez, who chaired the Environmental Board’s subcommittee on the 2025 plan, told In Fact Daily, “With transportation being one of our largest single environmentally detrimental activities, the main thing that struck us was that staff did not review the plan with any type of environmental criteria. The review that the city did was based on what kind of demand was going to be there and what kind of right-of-way would the roads need. We found that to be completely unacceptable. We said that all roads in the Drinking Water Protection Zone (DWPZ) should be kept at their current designations.”

Environmental Board Member Matt Watson worked with Alvarez on the subcommittee. Watson said, “When we saw that environmental concerns were not being given due consideration, we started laying out some criteria for evaluating these roadway projects as a whole for their sustainability. We came to the conclusion that was not our job. Work on sustainable transportation indicators has been done around the world and similar work has been done within the city. But it really is the job of city staff to go through the hard work of evaluating roadway projects for their environmental impact.”

The Environmental Board unanimously approved five recommendations, including a proposal from planners in the Planning, Environmental and Conservation Services Department to adopt alternatives on nine CAMPO-sponsored items. A sixth recommendation, on population projections, was adopted with only one dissenting vote.

In addition, the EB recommended that the city study the potential environmental impact of expanding roadway segments in the Drinking Water Protection Zone before adopting the 2025 Austin Metropolitan Area Transportation Plan (AMATP). The board said 26 roadway segments should be adopted as “existing,” as opposed to upgraded, until there is proof that “the presently recommended upgrades would result in negligible or improved environmental impact—particularly with respect to water quality.” Those segments include a number of major highways, including US 290 West from Fitzhugh Road to Loop 1 and SH 71 West from RM 2244 to US 290 West. CAMPO has proposed that these multiple-access roads be upgraded to six-lane freeways.

“The roadway segments listed above were selected for immediate re-evaluation because of their clear potential for causing further degradation of water quality,” the board said, in written comments.

The EB also said it “recognizes that the AMATP as a whole must be evaluated for its impact on air quality and that CAMPO is currently performing such an analysis in anticipation of federal non-attainment designation.”

Matt Watson told In Fact Daily, “I’m optimistic that the City Council will be very responsive to our recommendations. Mayor Watson, for example, has already moved the ball in this direction in his capacity as a member of CAMPO, instituting a new policy last year that would require CAMPO to evaluate larger projects for their ability to reduce congestion, increase mobility and improve air quality. Clearly, the mayor and other members of the Council have the vision to take on this challenging but important task.”

The board’s recommendations were subsequently adopted unanimously by both the Urban Transportation Commission and the Planning Commission.

The Planning Commission suggested that planners set goals for the region with regard to the issues that affect mobility, including:

• a specific level of transit ridership • a specific reduction in the rate of increase of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and VMT per capita; • a specific level of increase in the infrastructure that supports mobility by means other than single-occupant vehicles.

Perhaps the most controversial suggestion from the Planning Commission was that the CAMPO Plan deal not only with the “supply side of the equation (how many roads are necessary to meet projected demand), but if it also deal with the ‘demand’ side. How can cities, for example, reduce demand for new roads. Commissioner Robin Cravey mentioned “park it days,” such as are used in Mexico City. Every car is assigned a number corresponding with a day of the week and cannot be driven on that day. Several commissioners said that idea did not appeal to them.

Bicycle trip goals not met

The UTU criticized the staff of both CAMPO and the city for failing to achieve goals for increasing percentages of peak-hour commuting by bicycle and on foot. In their written comments, the UTU said, “The Austin City Council set goals in March 1998, for increasing bicycle trips to work by 20 percent per year, for increasing peak-hour pedestrian trips to work by eight percent per year, and for increasing transit commutes to work by eight percent per year (by the 2000).” Those goals were not met. The UTU noted, “The document adopted by CAMPO and proposed by the city of Austin as the 2025 Transportation Plan fails to address this issue, and it fails to make any recommendations whatsoever (for pedestrian and bicycle use).”

The UTU suggested that the City Manager report during the annual budget process on progress toward achieving increased pedestrian and bicycle commuting. The group suggested adding the city’s bicycle plan to the 2025 Transportation Plan, as well as a pedestrian plan when one is adopted.

Scheleen Johnson, a member of the UTU subcommittee that studied the proposed roadway plan, said the group decided that the commission needs to pay more attention to CAMPO’s proposals. For that reason, she said, the group created a permanent subcommittee on CAMPO.

The three commissions voted to recommend that the City of Austin “challenge the population growth assumptions included in the CAMPO 2025 plan” because they are too high. Johnson also worked as a consultant on the population projections for the CAMPO plan. She said the CAMPO staff wanted “the worst case scenario” and that’s what they got.

All three commissions noted that the transportation plan is in conflict with the city’s Corridor Planning Project and recommended that no roadway designations be changed until the City Council acts on recommendations from the project’s staff. The Planning Commission wrote, “The City of Austin should identify every roadway and roadway segment where CAMPO 2025 roadway recommendations conflict with city goals with regard to neighborhood protection, corridor enhancement.” One example of such a conflict is the CAMPO proposal to convert South Lamar from a 4-lane major arterial divided roadway (MAD-4) to a 6-lane major arterial divided roadway (MAD-6).

Teri McManus, a senior planner with PECSD, told In Fact Daily that the CAMPO staff is currently “performing an air quality performance analysis, which is federally required to address the impending non-attainment status.” That analysis should be completed in May, she said. “So it would probably this summer before they could take up any possible revisions to the overall regional plan.”

McManus said her department would take comments from all the commissions, along with comments received at public hearings, and incorporate them into a report for the City Council. Then it will be up to the Council to decide which recommendations to accept. After that, she said, the city has to go back to CAMPO and ask that that plan CAMPO adopted last summer be changed. The city plan and the CAMPO plan must be consistent, she said, so that the city can receive federal transportation funds.

Southern Union outlines

Conservation measures

Free heater program done with weatherization

Southern Union Gas will spend a little more than $800,000 in various programs and incentives this year for area residents, a company representative told the Resource Management Commission last week.

One of the most significant incentives—Southern Union's free heater program—is achieved in conjunction with the city's efforts to weatherproof homes of low-income residents, said Cher Montalvo, manager of Southern Union's incentive programs.

“We have a variety of programs, but the heater program is the most active at this time,” Montalvo said. “We only have 15 homes completed at this time, but we have many on the list that are pending.”

Under the program, Southern Union provides replacements for either a space heater or a wall furnace, Montalvo said. The utility will also replace any flexible connections on gas appliances. In addition, Southern Union will provide a carbon monoxide detector for the house, Montalvo said.

She added that Southern Union was working with a variety of agencies, including Meals on Wheels and the Urban League, to publicize the free heater program. At one time, Southern Union had a section that provided weatherization for houses, but now the utility has teamed up with the city, Montalvo said.

“We said, ‘You do the weatherization and we'll take care of the free heater side of it,’” she said.

The weatherization and heater replacement do not need to be done at the same time, Montalvo said. A resident who has had a house weatherized can come back to Southern Union later for the heater replacement. The utility replaces them but does not install new heaters because of the cost of ventilation to an existing house, Montalvo said in response to commissioner questions.

Southern Union, however, is learning that maintenance is as important as parts replacements, Montalvo said. The utility is looking to allocate dollars to help residents maintain their appliances. If not, she said, the homeowner “is right back where he was” in a year or two.

The utility does sponsor other programs and rebates. The Washer Wise program—which offers rebates for the front-loading high-efficiency washers—has been especially popular, Montalvo said. A total of 331 users have applied for the $50 rebate from Southern Union. The City of Austin offers an additional $100 rebate for water efficiency, depending on the model, Montalvo said.

Those businesses that want to convert vehicles to natural gas are also eligible for a rebate. The rebates—up to $2,000 for a vehicle or $1,000 for a forklift—are done in the name of improved air quality and environmental conservation rather than gas efficiency.

One program that is still up in the air is an incentive for natural gas log fireplaces. Montalvo clarified that the utility was not interested in rebates for logs. Instead, the utility wants to offer rebates to those buildings—primarily apartment complexes—that want to install self-sealed gas log fireplaces instead of wood-burning fireplaces. Interest in the program, Montalvo said, is high. She added that the incentive was not a gas conservation rebate, but rather a part of Southern Union’s effort to protect the environment. Commissioners wanted clarification on whether the gas log rebate would fall under Southern Union's franchise agreement with the city and decided to wait until next month to make a final decision.

Southern Union is also developing an incentive for companies and homes that use natural gas coolants. It would provide price breaks on a per ton basis for natural gas, offsetting the initial cost of converting systems, Montalvo said. Commissioners decided that program, too, would require further review and more information on the cost-benefit side. The commission is expected to take up the incentive programs on Feb. 20 after further study.

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

Capital Metro meeting . . . Members of the Cap Metro Board of Directors will meet today to elect new officers, discuss legislation, and consider a number of contracts. The board may also consider settlement of a lawsuit filed against the company by the City of Cedar Park. . . So many courtrooms, so little time . . . Members of the Hays County Water Planning Partnership (HCWPP) will be in federal court in Austin Tuesday, along with members of the Save Our Springs Alliance and the Save Barton Creek Association. Judge Sam Sparks will begin hearing the environmentalists’ request for an injunction against the US Corps of Engineers and the Lower Colorado River Authority, among others, to stop the water pipeline being constructed along US Hwy. 290 to Dripping Springs. On Wednesday, the HCWPP will be in state court in Hays County in a suit against the Hays County Commissioners Court for allegedly violating the Open Meetings Act in conjunction with the 2025 Transportation Plan for Hays County (see In Fact Daily, May 26, 2000) . . . Oops! . . Terry Mitchell of Milburn Homes said he would build 5,000 houses in the 2,500 square foot size range over the next five years, or 1,000 per year, not 5,000 per year. We regret the error.

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

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