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Basis of final opinion was political, not scientific, says SOSA

Friday, May 31, 2002 by

The Save Our Springs Alliance (SOSA) returned to federal court Thursday, renewing the effort to force the federal government to better protect the endangered Barton Springs Salamander. The environmental group says the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) succumbed to political pressure when they chose to issue a biological opinion allowing continued use of the Construction General Permit in the Barton Springs Zone.

US District Judge Sam Sparks gave the USFWS 30 days to turn over all documents relevant to its biological opinion on the EPA’s construction permit process. That opinion found that the EPA had taken sufficient steps to guard against pollution entering the Barton Springs Watershed and harming the salamander. But the recent ruling was in direct contrast to the agency’s “draft biological opinion” issued last summer, which found that the EPA’s policies were allowing the salamander to be placed in jeopardy.

Officials with SOSA claim the reversal was based on political pressure, not science, and want to review USFWS documents, memos and e-mails relating to the decision. According to the environmental group, “The final Biological Opinion is arbitrary and capricious and not in compliance with the Endangered Species Act.”

If USFWS records reveal no evidence of new scientific information to support the reversal, SOSA could request further legal remedies. The key, said SOSA Executive Director Bill Bunch, will be the material presented by the federal agency. “If they put all that information in the record, which we believe they should, then we can just point to it . . . if they choose not to, then that’s when we could ask for discovery to prove this political interference.” That could involve taking testimony from officials with the USFWS or other federal agencies. “A lawyer that used to work for developers in Austin is now in the Department of the Interior,” Bunch said, “and we believe there has been interference there.” The USFWS is a branch of the Interior Department.

Austin attorney Amy Johnson represented SOSA in court Thursday, while Mark Stermitz with the U.S. Department of Justice represented the federal agencies by telephone from Washington, D.C. Johnson began by arguing that the previous settlement of a lawsuit involving SOSA and the USFWS did not prevent SOSA from challenging the final biological opinion. Stermitz agreed the environmental group did have that right and Judge Sparks established a timeline for the remainder of the proceedings. The USFWS will have 30 days to produce the appropriate information, and SOSA will have 30 more days to respond. That response will likely include a request for summary judgment instructing the federal agency to revert to the “draft biological opinion,” or it could include a request for additional discovery proceedings. The USFWS will then have an additional 30 days to respond to the environmental group’s petition before the judge takes the matter under consideration.

Two toll roads and SH 130 move forward

Members of the Texas Transportation Commission Thursday approved a series of measures that will allow three central Texas highway projects to proceed. In addition to officially accepting SH 45 North and the proposed northern extension of Loop 1 as toll roads, the commission also set up the draft financial plan for the two projects and the initial portion of SH 130.

The plan calls for issuing $1.8 billion in bonds to pay for the toll roads. The recommendation to issue those bonds will have to go first to the state’s Bond Review Board ( http://www.brb.state.tx.us ), which is comprised of the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Comptroller, Speaker of the House and the bond counsel from the Texas Attorney General’s office. The authority to issue state bonds to fund toll roads was approved by Texas voters last fall in an amendment to the Texas Constitution. Officials with the Texas Department of Transportation say they will be able to complete the toll roads sooner by spending the money up front instead of using the traditional “pay as you go” system.

Local government entities have pledged $150 million to help acquire right-of-way for SH 130, although it’s not certain that amount will satisfy state officials. Further details on the amount expected from the cities and counties along SH 130 are expected in June, when the commission signs the construction contract with Lone Star Infrastructure, the consortium which was chosen last month to handle all of the work on the project. Travis County voters approved $66.2 million for SH 130 last November (see In Fact Daily, Nov. 7, 2001 ), and the total commitment from the county is expected to be $90 million. Williamson County would put up $45 million, and the Austin City Council last week passed a resolution pledging $15 million. If those amounts are accepted as sufficient by the state, supporters of SH 130 have said construction could begin before the end of this year.

Business owners united on need for better lights

A handful of business owners and South Austin residents gathered at St. Edward’s University Wednesday evening to hear from city planners about options for improving the appearance and safety of South Congress Avenue . Voters approved $4 million to pay for the proposed improvements in the 1998 bond election, but the project was put on hold for the Capital Metro light rail election. The proposed route for the light rail line was not fixed at the time of the vote, and some opponents were concerned that the transit agency would install a rail line down Congress Avenue. But voters rejected the light rail proposal, so the city is reviving the South Congress Avenue Streetscape Improvement Project.

The first step will be to conduct a survey to determine which of the proposed amenities are priorities for the community. Those include better sidewalks, crosswalks, lighting, benches, bicycle racks and trees. The city plans to contact all the neighborhood associations between IH-35 and Lamar, and also place a survey on the city’s web site. “We know the funding is not enough to do everything we want,” said Pollyanne Melton of the city’s Transportation, Planning and Sustainability Department. “We could do a single improvement for the entire corridor, or we could choose some specific areas to target for a more extensive level of development . . . or we could do a combination of the two.”

The city will continue collecting public input through the beginning of July, then incorporate those suggestions into designs to be presented later that month. Gail Armstrong, owner of the Off the Wall antique shop and president of the South Congress Avenue Merchants Association, told city staff that merchants had expressed a desire for improved lighting even before the 1998 bond election. “There was a consensus on at least one item,” Armstrong said, “and that was for pedestrian lights. Everybody was behind that.”

The city has already contracted with a lighting engineer to study different options along South Congress, with the expectation that some street-lighting improvement could be done. Any work that is done along the street will be designed to be compatible with what the city is calling “enhanced transportation” along South Congress in the future. Staff predicts that the streetscape work will not have a significant impact on traffic along South Congress. They also say they’ll coordinate closely with the project manager of work scheduled for South First Street. Some lanes on South First will be closed for a separate project, and some traffic from that street will likely be diverted to South Congress. Work on the South Congress streetscape improvements could begin in May of 2003.

here for Monday ,,

Friday.

Asian culture celebration . . . Mayor Gus Garcia will give the keynote speech at this year’s Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month Cultural Celebration at noon today at the City Coliseum. The event is free and begins at 11:30am with demonstrations of Chinese, Filipino, Hawaiian, Indian and Vietnamese dance, tai chi and aikido. Exotic foods will also be available . . . Toll road opponent continues to fight . . . Environmental and alternative-transportation activist Roger Baker attended Thursday’s Texas Transportation Commission meeting in a futile attempt to convince the commission to put a halt to the project. Baker distributed flyers that referred to SH 130 as the “toll road to hell” and criticized the use of bonds to pay for toll road projects . . . The bikers are coming! . . The Republic of Texas Biker Rally is coming to town today and tomorrow, closing E. 6th Street, and parts of San Jacinto, Trinity, Neches, Red River and Sabine Streets. On Sunday, the Texas Lottery Commission will be celebrating its 10th Anniversary with live music and lottery ticket vendors, requiring closure of 500-600 Red River until 11:30pm. For more information, visit http://www.txlottery.org . . . Only one slow week . . . City boards, commissions and committees will move into fast forward once more next week. Monday meetings include the ZAP Task Force on Stratus Properties’ proposal, the Historic Landmark Commission and the Design Commission. On Tuesday, the Zoning and Platting Commission will meet to consider numerous zoning cases, subdivisions and site plans, as well as making a recommendation on changes to the city ordinance governing Temporary Use Permits

© 2002 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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