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Warmer days, higher ozone levels, threaten economy

Thursday, April 3, 2003 by

Mike Heiligenstein, chair of the Clean Air Force Board of Directors, wants Central Texans to know that this year’s ozone season—which will start soon—is more important to the area’s health and economic future than all those that have occurred previously. During the past six years, the area has recorded an average ozone level of 86ppb—just above the federal standard of 85ppb. That one part per billion could make a world of difference, he said.

With the advent of warm weather, ground level ozone begins to build, pushing Austin’s ozone readings above the federal air quality standard. The Williamson County Commissioner says it is very important that the area reduce that level because failing to meet ozone standards could have an economic impact. “If Toyota had been looking at the Austin area for its new plant,” which will be in San Antonio, “we would not even have been considered,” he said, “if we had been in non-attainment.” He added that Dallas and Houston were “out of the running from the beginning,” because of higher than acceptable ozone levels. “Every industry that would want to move here would have to go through criteria and modeling to prove that they don’t add to ozone. The other thing would be potential road construction roadblocks. If we go to non-attainment, then every new project on the drawing board would have to be modeled to make sure it doesn’t add to ozone.”

Heiligenstein explained that this summer and fall will be critical because Central Texas has signed an Early Action Compact with the EPA to stay a step ahead of the non-attainment designation that would have those negative economic repercussions. “The key date is this fall . . . we have to get our modeling data to EPA so they can approve the background or baseline information we’re going to be using. That gives us a baseline for the types of strategies we could use that would cut back on ozone production. That needs to happen in November, and then in 2004 we really have to be implementing real-time strategies that are reducing ozone,” he said.

During the next year, the Clean Air Force will be working on a plan for improvement of air quality so the area will be in compliance with the ozone standard by 2007. Through its program Clean Air Solutions, the CAF will be seeking public input on reducing ozone.

This year, as they have in the past, Central Texas town and city governments will urge their residents not to put gas in their cars during the prime ozone-building time, from early morning to early afternoon, and to avoid driving and mowing the lawn during announced “ozone action days.” Heiligenstein said local businesses are stepping up to lower their ozone emissions, but much depends on the individual driver. Also, he said area governments will be participating by enforcing non-idling rules for school buses and road and bridge crews, and they will be experimenting with low sulfur fuels—which are more expensive, but create less pollution. Capital Metro has purchased 50,000 gallons of the low sulfur gas for a pilot project, according to Sam Archer, assistant director of community involvement. Cap Metro will also continue to offer free bus service on ozone action days.

Staff recommends 120-day delay before ordinance takes effect

The City Council is scheduled to make a final decision today on what constraints to put on new development located close to hazardous liquid pipelines. City staff has recommended a conditional 200-foot setback for buildings intended to house mobility-impaired populations and a 120-day window before the ordinance goes into effect. Yesterday, Mike Heitz, director of Watershed Protection and Development Review, and Fire Chief Gary Warren presented those recommendations to the Council.

The Save Barton Creek Association and Austin Safe Pipeline Coalition supported a setback of 500 feet or greater for mobility-impaired populations. The Austin Independent School District, the Real Estate Council of Austin and the Home Builders Association, among others, supported a 200-foot setback, with a fire department review for developments proposed to sit between 200 and 500 feet from such a pipeline. That is the option recommended by staff.

The location of the proposed Colony Park Elementary School off Loyola Lane is one example of how the conditional review would be used. The city and the Austin Independent School District are discussing a joint school/recreational facility on the site. With the 500-foot exclusion, the school could not be built there since it would be too close to the Koch pipeline.

A 200-foot conditional setback, however, would allow city staff to evaluate the topography, placement of the pipeline and other man-made barriers, Warren said. Those factors, and the construction material used in the building, could impact the travel of liquid or vapor trails.

Council Member Betty Dunkerley said other factors should be considered in the equation, too, such as fire resistance levels of building materials. A one-hour evacuation calculation might be adjusted if the development is further away from the pipeline, providing more protection from fire.

The city also had concerns about development projects that were “in the pipeline” when the ordinance is approved by the Council. Heitz estimates that almost 900 lots are in the building permit process.

The Save Barton Creek Association and Austin Safe Pipeline Coalition preferred that the ordinance kick in as each development reaches the building permit stage, which would affect more development. Other stakeholders preferred that the ordinance take effect during the subdivision/site plan process. City staff will recommend the ordinance apply 120 days after the ordinance is approved. Most development projects currently in the process should be completed by the time the 120-day window closes.

Heitz told Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman that the hospital on Dittmar currently planning an expansion should have no problems with the new ordinance, as long as the construction meets building standards. Most hospitals are required to meet fire standards that exceed regular construction, Warren said.

After the workshop, Heitz said the department is still determining when pipelines will be considered during the permit process. Most likely it will be during the subdivision process, he said. New GIS maps of the city are intended to point out where pipelines are located.

Policy commission wants to tinker with operations

Members of the Airport Advisory Commission (AAC) continue to express frustration over what they perceive to be a lack of responsiveness from the city’s Aviation Department.

During an annual report to the Council on Wednesday, Chair Hannah Riddering and Commissioner Mike Voticky complained that airport management was not taking the advisory board’s input seriously, mirroring the complaints that had caused so much tension between the board and former Aviation Department staff before the board was reconstituted almost 18 months ago.

Riddering expressed her frustration with the Aviation Department, and specifically about Executive Director Jim Smith, who oversees airport operations. Riddering cited recent concerns expressed by cabdrivers—a lack of shade or protection during the hot summer months and the lack of proper accommodations for prayer time for Muslim drivers—as two of the concerns addressed by the commission that airport management has ignored.

The tension between what non-statutorily created commissions would like and the reality of what city government is willing to do in acquiescence to their wishes is a perennial theme among members of some of those boards. Charles Gates, who is the Aviation Department’s liaison with the AAC, said the role of the board is to act as an adviser on policy issues to the City Council.

Sometimes it is clear that commissioners are crossing the line between giving advice on policy issues and making recommendations on day-to-day operations. Some members of the AAC, like cab driver Riddering, frequently do business at the airport. Others, like Voticky, are frequent business travelers who have enough knowledge to compare the performance of the Austin Bergstrom International Airport with other airports. So discussions naturally and regularly delve into operational decisions.

The last time the friction between board members and staff became overwhelming, the Council approved overhauling the ordinance governing the commission, agreeing to appoint people with direct connections to airport business to the board. Board members were intended to reflect experience in aviation, real estate and legal services. Gates agrees that the new board, in many ways, has functioned much better than its predecessor.

Still, commissioners are frustrated by the lack of input they can offer on the day-to-day operations, on items as minimal as proper signage for the airport. In recent months, the group has also dealt with the possible increase of parking fees, the concerns of taxicab drivers and the presentation of the airport’s long-term master plan.

Beyond that, the activity of the commission has been fairly quiet, Gates said.

“Quite honestly, we haven’t had that many items on the Council agenda to consider,” Gates said. “Due to our budget constraints, there have been very few action items and very few contracts, except for some work out of the Public Works Department.”

After a post-workshop meeting on Wednesday, Assistant City Manager John Stephens was added to the list of managers who can work as intermediaries with the commission. Part of Stephen’s new job duties will be to act as an additional staff member to listen to commissioners’ concerns..

Tuesday ,,

Friday.

Endorsements and forums . . . Mayoral candidate Will Wynn continued to outpace the rest of the field, adding the West Austin Democrats to his endorsement list last night. Place 5 candidate Margot Clarke garnered her second endorsement, perhaps slightly slowing the Brewster McCracken bandwagon. Incumbent Council Members Raul Alvarez and Danny Thomas also won. Each endorsed candidate won by a landslide. The Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association will hold a mayoral candidate forum next Monday at 6 pm at the Nokonah Club Room at 901 W. 9th Street. The Real Estate Council of Austin will host a candidate forum Tuesday, at their monthly luncheon, at noon at The Four Seasons Hotel . . . Also at the City Council . . . The Council is scheduled to discuss evaluations of Municipal Court judges during a 10am executive session at the LCRA today. Later, they will consider amending the city’s agreement with attorneys Rogers & Wright, who are doing battle in the city’s condemnation case against downtown property owner Harry Whittington. The amendment would add $20,000 to the tab, for a total not to exceed $146,000. Parking at city meters would increase from the current rate of 75 cents per hour to one dollar per hour under another proposal on the agenda. Two public hearings are scheduled for 6pm—one relating to super-duplexes and the second relating to infill options for neighborhood plans . . . Austin and Travis County moving toward agreement . . . Assistant City Manager Lisa Gordon says the city and county are moving ever closer to agreement on a single set of subdivision regulations. Even though the two jurisdictions tend to disagree on road priorities, the city and county can return to the discussion of how those preferences impact subdivision platting, which Gordon says is the real issue at hand. The question comes down to how subdivisions are handled rather than who wants the extension of Frate Barker Road, she said . . . Clean water project progress. . . Bill Moriarty, program manager for the Austin Clean Water Program told the Water and Wastewater Commission Wednesday that a $100 million overhaul of sewer lines is now underway, with three of the 65 total projects currently under construction and several more in the planning stage. The program was created in November 2001 to address an Environmental Protection Agency order that mandated fixes to prevent overflows. The first phase of the program addresses the Crosstown Interceptor Basin in North Austin—25 projects that include major repairs in the Little Walnut watershed. Little Walnut Creek experienced a major overflow from flooding and blocked line in July of last year. The Crosstown phase should be completed by September of 2005, with all projects due by December of 2007. Moriarty also noted that the program is holding a contractor’s forum on May 2 to educate firms on the projects and encourage competitive bidding, particularly among women- and minority-owned firms. For more information, contact 684-3204 . . . Notable additions . . . Ben Bentzin, Patricia Hayes, Ian Ball, Penny McLeskey, Suzanne Soares and Tracy Stiba have all joined the board of directors of the Travis County Children’s Advocacy Center. The center is a non-profit organization that assists children who have been abused and law enforcement agencies investigating crimes related to child abuse . . . Rail board meets Friday . . . The board of the Austin-San Antonio Intermunicipal Commuter Rail District is scheduled to meet this Friday, 11am to 1pm, at the Capital Area Council of Governments offices in Austin.

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