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Program likely necessary under voluntary Clean Air plan

Monday, April 7, 2003 by

Austin is headed toward an emissions inspection test for a three- or four-county area by 2004, as the region continues to grapple with the issue of non-attainment of the federal Clean Air Act. Austin’s Sustainability Officer Fred Blood was on hand at the Environmental Board last week to discuss what those emissions tests would mean. The board did not consider any variance cases at Wednesday night’s meeting.

“We are anticipating that an inspection and maintenance program will be necessary in our Clean Air plan,” Blood said after the meeting. “We’re not certain what our plan will be until this fall, but looking at the way it’s coming down right now, we’re pretty sure an I&M program will be part of it.”

That’s because an Inspection and Maintenance program gives the region the most bang for the buck. This fall, cities and counties in the region’s Clean Air Force are meeting to consider what measures each jurisdiction is comfortable implementing in order to bring the region back into compliance. Each county or city will pick its own “bundle of options” to meet clean air standards, Blood said.

One of Austin’s likely choices will be the emissions inspection program. The program, if it is proposed and approved this fall, would take a year to implement. One option would be traditional tailpipe testing, but Blood described two additional alternatives for compliance: the use of OBD, or on-board data, to assess cars, and the implementation of remote sensoring of commuter traffic.

OBD testing would hook up a monitoring device to a car’s computer to assess how efficiently the car runs. The test uses on-board computers, which means it can only be used on cars made in 1996 or later. Blood said the test is faster and more efficient than tailpipe testing. By 2007, more than 80 percent of cars on the road in Travis County would probably qualify for the test, Blood said.

The city also is considering the use of remote sensors. The remote sensor test would monitor tailpipes on roadways for excessive emissions and take a picture of the license plate for each problem car. Owners of cars with repeated infractions would be warned, by letter, to take the vehicles in for an emissions test, Blood said. Those “high emitters” who failed to address the problem could be prevented from getting a safety inspection, Blood said.

Such an option is important to Austin because the number of University of Texas students alone, most of whom commute, is equal to the number of residents in Caldwell County. The emissions testing and remote sensors combined could provide significant gains for the region.

The direction of the regional Clean Air Force coalition has changed in recent months. Blood said the regional work group, intended to address clean air issues, has gone from a voluntary effort simply talking about the clean air issue to a more directed group poised to provide public education.

“The needs of the region have changed significantly, and the role of the Clean Air Force had to change, too,” Blood said. “Instead of a voluntary group saying, ‘Let’s sit around and talk about the problem,’ we’re now, ‘We’ve got to get out there and do something.’”

City staffs are being asked to use their own professional expertise to develop a clean air plan. The Clean Air Force is intended to provide a public outreach and educational role for those efforts.

The state is in the process of funding Clean Air legislation, most of which will go to the non-attainment areas of Houston and Dallas. The city and county have both expressed concerns that current legislation is cutting out low emissions diesel fuel as an option for cities, one of the cheapest ways to address clean air. Such a move will mean a real loss of possible clean air credits to many areas of the state, Blood said. The Central Texas region has promised to address its ozone problem through voluntary programs in order to avoid the non-attainment designation, which triggers onerous restrictions on new business and construction of roadways, according to Mike Heiligenstein, chair of the Clean Air Force (See In Fact Daily, April 3, 2003) .

Mattress factory site could see homes, shops

East Austin neighbors spent last Tuesday night at David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church envisioning what their part of town could be in the future with proper planning.

Last week’s test site workshop was part of the five-region planning effort known as Envision Central Texas (ECT). ECT, with the help of Fregonese Calthorpe Associates (FCA) of Portland, asked neighborhood leaders, civic activists, the development community and even a couple of police officers assigned to the area to envision what the former site of the Featherlite mattress factory could be. The area is sandwiched between the former Robert Mueller Airport and downtown.

Participants were divided into groups at a dozen tables, many leaning over a large table-size map of the area. At one table, where Chestnut civic leader Scottie Ivory was sitting, the group was adding a flower shop, boutique, coffee shop and bookstore around a rail station. At another table, city planner Pollyanne Melton was facilitating a discussion about how a church would be accommodated. At a third table, Eleanor McKinney, a member of the Design Commission, placed an art gallery on Martin Luther King Boulevard. And at another table, a group talked about extending Clifford Street to create a node of development.

The plans are different. Some people would like to see small shops along Martin Luther King Boulevard; others want multi-family housing. Some believe in multi-family housing with ground-floor retail, while others would prefer to see single-family housing and townhomes scattered throughout the neighborhood. It will be FCA’s job to process and interpret all of the input.

Six sites—this one suggested by the City of Austin—have been chosen for focus groups. Glen Bolen of FCA said the initial work of the group was to create an overall set of goals for the region. This workshop took those goals down to a neighborhood level.

“We tried to look at a variety of sites for these test site workshops that were representative of the area,” Nolen said. “We looked at an urban infill site. We looked at a site with environmental issues. We even looked at a site that was green field, a place where no development has occurred at all.”

Byron Marshall, Executive Director of the Austin Revitalization Authority, was at one table. Marshall said the suggestions of his community group—rehabilitating existing housing, preserving historic housing and bringing new retail services into the area—was right in line with the ARA’s efforts on 11th and 12th streets.

Each group wrote its suggestions down the side panel of the table map. All the input will next be synthesized into one illustrative map. From that, a regulatory map, or one determining zoning criteria, will be developed. Additionally, FCA will bring back some in-depth design standards for the area. Nolen presented some maps from similar workshops in the Twin Cities to illustrate the process.

“We don’t have the answers, but we can give the people who live here the knowledge of how to find solutions for the things they are looking for,” Nolen said.

ECT will host an open house this summer to present plans of the Featherlite site to local residents, Nolen said. One of the main benefits that make ECT different from other planning efforts is that the organization will be around to help the City of Austin implement steps to achieve the results of the Featherlite plan. As Executive Director Beverly Silas has told various groups, the ECT does not intend to create a plan that will gather dust on a shelf..

Listen to the candidates . . . The Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association has scheduled a forum with mayoral candidates tonight at the Nokonah, at 9th and Lamar, beginning at 6pm tonight . . . The Austin Clean Energy Initiative, a coalition of environmental groups, is sponsoring a forum from 8 to 9:30pm tonight to hear candidates’ views of a plan to develop solar power in Austin. The meeting will be at the Ragsdale Center, St. Edward’s University, 3001 S. Congress . . . Design Commission meets . . . The city’s volunteer group of architects, developers and artists who review downtown projects is scheduled to hear an update on City Hall and The Pedernales condos. The project, being developed by commission Chair Perry Lorenz in association with Larry Warshaw and Richard de Varga, could provide condos for those who want to live downtown but cannot afford the hefty price tags west of I-35. The trio envisions The Pedernales as a home in the Holly Street neighborhood for musicians, artists and members of the film industry . . . Let’s get together . . . The City Council decided to postpone approving changes that would add more members to the region’s road planning group until after members can meet with representatives of the other entities involved. In Fact Daily will report more on this matter shortly.

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