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Visions of I-35 in 2021:

Thursday, January 25, 2001 by

Packed12 hours a day

Light rail, more bus service top ANC wish list

By Doug McLeod

At the end of the meeting last night, Austin Neighborhoods Council President Jim Walker announced results of an ANC survey on mobility that had specifically asked citizens about priorities. The top two concerns chosen out of 15 were to bring back a different light rail referendum and to increase frequency on bus routes.

But even with the development of a light rail system, new freeways and toll roads, Austin’s main arterial routes will be running at over capacity in 20 years, according to analysts. “When we project traffic, we assume light rail is in place. If that’s all in place, IH-35 is going to be running at over capacity 12 hours a day,” including the frontage roads and other through routes, said Roland Gamble, of Earth Tech Transportation Services. “In 20 years the whole system is going to be running at over capacity.” Even the proposed SH 130, looping around the city to the east, will be running full, he said.

Members of the ANC heard Gamble lay out the current vision of IH-35’s future Wednesday night. He is the team leader of a study underway by the Texas Department of Transportation called “Building a Better IH-35”.

“Through the downtown area we think we can increase efficiency and make it look better,” he said, noting that part of the team includes Land Design Studios, a group of urban designers. “They want to make this look like Austin…not Dallas,” he said.

“They really want to make this look aesthetically pleasing,” said Creola Burns, with Group Solutions RJW, who helped make the presentation to the ANC.

Phase II of the study is now underway. Gamble said, “We’re looking at what TXDoT should do in the long run.” With or without improvements, “IH-35 is always gonna run full of traffic,” he said, but “we’re looking at HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) lanes . . . ramp locations and how we can improve traffic flow.”

The stretch of IH-35 with upper and lower sections poses the biggest problem, he said. “We’re interested in doing what’s right for the citizens of Austin, but it’s really tough.” Gamble said his personal observation was that “most people want to see the upper level removed.” But the logistics involved make that “just about impossible,” he said.

Such a strategy would mean widening the freeway and would require an additional 65 feet of land, stretching into neighborhoods, the University of Texas, Brackenridge Hospital and the Mt. Calvary Cemetery. Encroaching on the cemetery would mean digging up between 500 and 900 graves. Gaining family approval to remove ancient headstones would be “just about impossible,” Gamble said.

One study he mentioned suggested making IH-35 18 lanes wide. Ruling that out, he said, “the option of widening the upper level” would mean tearing the existing upper deck down and starting from scratch. At this point the team is considering a design which would have the frontage roads overhanging the main lanes of the freeway, he said.

“Eighty percent of the traffic on IH-35 is generated in the metropolitan area,” Gamble said, thus the shift of through traffic moving to SH 130 after it is built won’t have a major impact.

HOV lanes coming from north and south will end in midtown and disperse traffic into the downtown area, he said. “Through that downtown area we don’t have the HOV lanes,” so the frontage roads would not be elevated over the freeway, he said.

When someone asked about shoulder width for emergency vehicle access, commenting on an accident in which EMS technicians practically had to rappel down to the roadway to rescue a victim, Gamble assured him 10-foot wide shoulders would border the freeway.

Construction won’t begin for at least ten years, Gamble said. “There will be a public meeting soon, hopefully before June or July,” he said. . The Project team is seeking feedback from citizens on how to better build IH-35. For more information call 443-3852.

San Antonio, LCRA Board

Prepare to vote on water deal

Funds would be used for Colorado improvments

The Lower Colorado River Authority’s plan to sell water to save water will go to its first vote in the coming week. Both the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) and the LCRA will vote on a memorandum of understanding to sell billions of gallons to San Antonio to raise the funds necessary to make long-term improvements to the Colorado River basin.

The plan—if it works—is intended to be a long-term fix for area water shortages. Water shortages are so bad, said LCRA spokesman Robert Cullick, that anytime a person moves to Austin “it means that rice farmers downstream have less water to use.” If water can be conserved, it could save the rice industry in Matagorda, Wharton and Colorado counties. It’s only 100 farmers, but a major percentage of the Gulf Coast economy.

“If we don’t fix this, these communities will dry up and go away,” Cullick said.

LCRA knows the Colorado basin has serious long-term problems. Inefficiencies are reducing water flow, especially to farmers. A regional state-created water-planning group determined it would take several hundred million dollars to fix the problem.

Their solution to the problem is as follows: San Antonio has been in the midst of a water shortage. LCRA agrees to sell SAWS about 48 billion gallons per year. Revenue from that sale will be used to achieve two major initiatives. The first would be to improve the efficiency of the rice industry’s archaic water systems, which could save up to 27 billion gallons of water a year. The second would be to add basins, or reservoirs, along the river route as a massive 2,500-mile rainwater collection system.

LCRA General Manager Joe Beal initially opposed the deal, but became more optimistic about the contract at yesterday’s meeting. “Our group did an outstanding job,” he told the LCRA board. “They followed my direction and your direction over the last year.”

SAWS will consider the contract along with an additional agreement with the Guadalupe Blanco River Authority at a meeting on Friday. The LCRA board will consider the contract at a special-called meeting on Monday. If the two authorities can agree, in principle, then a seven-year environmental study process can begin.

Board promises lower electric rates

The LCRA's board also announced Wednesday that they intend to reduce wholesale electric rates by the end of the year. Dudley Piland, executive manager of wholesale power services, said the utility’s debt service coverage could be lowered after the cost of the utility’s new Lost Pines Unit 1 plant is fully funded and reserves replenished.

What that means, explained LCRA spokesman Bill McCann, is a reduction in the base rate paid by the co-ops and other wholesale customers. On the other hand, the price of natural gas, which is passed through to customers as a fuel charge, has been at or near an all-time high. Piland said he is expecting those prices to go down before the end of the year.

Piland said, with the new power plant coming on line, the LCRA will see a significant decline in costs because “it’s a much more efficient plant.” The new plant at Bastrop is gas powered, but very efficient technology, he said. Utility officials say that when the new plant comes on line, total emissions from that plant and its neighboring plant combined will be less than what the old plant is generating today.

The LCRA paid cash for the new plant, which is owned in partnership with Calpine. When the utility’s reserves are back at a comfortable level, the debt service will go down and so will the base charge. The new plant is on schedule and is expected to come on line in June. The LCRA also relies on its coal-fired plant, the Fayette Power Project, as well as hydropower.

In other action . . .

The LCRA recognized Keep Austin Beautiful for its efforts in the October clean up at Lake Travis. More than 1,000 volunteers, including 16 underwater dive teams, participated in the largest clean-up effort ever on the lake. More than 1,400 bags of litter and trash were collected while the waters on the lake were low. Keep Austin Beautiful provided $20,000 in supplies and materials.

The board also made short order of adding Martin Luther King’s birthday to the lake agency’s authorized holidays next year. That brings The LCRA’s approved holidays up to 11, including two floating holidays. That’s still less than the 13 holidays approved for City of Austin employees and 13.5 days for holidays for state employees. More than 100 LCRA employees participated in the MLK Day march last Monday.

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

Convention hotel bonds? . . . Is it just a rumor or is that big insurance company really going to buy all of Austin’s convention hotel bonds and save the city from lingering embarrassment? . . . How RECA’s consultants see the Legislature . . . Mignon McGarry and Chuck McDonald, the Real Estate Council’s legislative consultants, will talk about redistricting at next Wednesday’s membership meeting. The luncheon begins at 11:30 a.m. at the Four Seasons Hotel . . . ABIA groundbreaking . . . Congressman Lloyd Doggett and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman are among the speakers for Friday morning’s groundbreaking ceremony for general aviation t-hangars at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport . . . Park Partnership series announced . . . The city’s Office of Neighborhood Services and the Austin Park Foundation have announced a series of six workshops to assist neighborhoods in improving and planning their parks. The workshops will begin on Saturday, February 24 at Austin Community College Eastview Campus, 3401 Webberville Road. For more information, call Donna Jackson at 499-7670.

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

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