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New proposal would be for smaller, less expensive project

Thursday, May 8, 2003 by

The City of Austin is reaching out to Travis County for some help in getting the Waller Creek Tunnel project back on track. Voters approved $25 million in bonds for the downtown flood-control project back in 1998, but the current estimated cost for the tunnel is now $49.6 million. To make up the difference, the city is considering creating a Tax Increment Finance District to allow property taxes collected in the area surrounding the creek to be directed away from the city’s General Fund and into a special fund for the tunnel project.

Under a proposal being discussed with the county, both governmental bodies would issue $16 million in certificates of obligation this September to provide funding up-front. The two jurisdictions would also share in the costs for operation and maintenance of the tunnel once it is completed. Those costs are estimated at $1.5 million each year. Once completed, the tunnel would divert floodwater into Town Lake, provide protection to 42 existing buildings downtown and reduce the width of the floodplain by hundreds of feet.

Both jurisdictions could benefit from additional long-term property tax revenue as the value of land along Waller Creek increases. The city estimates that by constructing a 15.5-foot diameter tunnel, about 1.2 million square feet of land currently in the flood plain could be made available for development. While that is a smaller project than the 22-foot diameter tunnel originally envisioned in a 1996 study, it would still meet a majority of the goals originally established for the tunnel. There is some support for building the larger tunnel, which would cost an estimated at $57.1 million. The Downtown Commission recently voted 10-2-1 to endorse that option. Following the original design, the tunnel would be 5,000 feet long and 22 feet in diameter and follow a route along Sabine Street. The alternate, less expensive recommendation would run along Red River Street.

To supplement their discussions with county officials, city staff members are soliciting input from members of the public. They’ll hold a meeting to discuss the project next Tuesday at 6pm at Town Lake Center.

The Houston Chronicle reported yesterday that Austin Senator Gonzalo Barrientos said he has the votes to block consideration of any redistricting bill should it come to the Senate. Two-thirds of the members of the 31-member Senate must agree to suspend the rules in order to consider legislation.

State Rep. Richard Raymond (D-Laredo), a member of the Redistricting Committee, rushed off a letter to the Department of Justice complaining of violations of the Voting Rights Act and asking for “a prompt and thorough investigation of this complaint.” In his six-page letter, Raymond complains that the hearings—many conducted at night with little or no notice—do not comply with federal law. He quotes remarks by committee chair Rep. Joe Crabb (R-Houston) as direct evidence of “his discriminatory intent aimed at Hispanic voters. When coupled with other comments and actions plainly disdainful and disrespectful of those who are the chosen representatives of Hispanic voters in Texas, these insults also underscore the fact that the House Redistricting Committee failed to offer the minority communities in Texas any meaningful input and participation in the redistricting process.

The map approved by the committee splits Travis County into four congressional districts. Voters near the State Capitol and the University of Texas, for example, are coupled with a much greater number of San Antonio suburbanites. Congressional District 10, the home of US Rep. Lloyd Doggett, “stretches all the way to Houston as well as southeast almost to the Gulf Coast,” according to an analysis by Congressman Martin Frost.

WPDR seeks creative thinking from commissioners

Watershed Protection and Development Review Director Mike Heitz used Tuesday night’s budget briefing to the Zoning and Platting Commission to preview the difficult task facing the department during upcoming budget discussions—and to request commissioners’ suggestions on making budget cuts. “Staff has made recommendations . . . and every year when you have a budget reduction, you get the same things,” Heitz said. “Increase fees . . . don’t buy equipment, etc. That’s not going to get us there this year. It’s going to be a bigger task.”

Heitz said the department would need to re-evaluate its practices and organizational structure in order to operate more efficiently. “We changed things two years ago, and we need to take on the next step,” he said. “It is time to think differently.” The ZAP commissioners were asked to bring their outside perspective and expertise to the table as all aspects of the department are examined. “City staff is sometimes too close to the problem,” he said. Heitz said the department was looking at savings of $1 million out of the $8 million from the General Fund used to support development review.

Commission members recently put together a report of possible city cost savings for the upcoming fiscal year. That report was presented to the director of the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department and will be forwarded to the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department.

Today at City Council . . . Media attention has been focused on the controversial no-smoking ordinance, but the Council has numerous other important items to consider. The super-duplex ordinance, which the Council requested in late February, is on the agenda once more, but its passage and final form remain uncertain. Council Member Betty Dunkerley said Wednesday that she is hoping to approve an ordinance today that would limit height of large duplexes to 30 feet—two stories—and perhaps enact an occupancy limit of six unrelated adults per lot. She said that might prevent the very large duplexes that have upset residents in neighborhoods close to the University of Texas, but still allow plenty of space for those seeking a larger home . . . The Council will also be briefed on a lawsuit filed against the city and the Board of Adjustment over the board’s reversal of a permitting decision for a large duplex at 3207 Hampton Road . . . Dunkerley and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman may have a lengthy discussion on the process of amending neighborhood plans. Several weeks ago, the Council enacted an ordinance making it difficult to change those plans without the approval of neighborhood planning teams, except for Smart Growth projects and projects that create or promote retention of a major employer. Dunkerley wants to make the process easier, while Goodman, who championed the neighborhood planning process, would like to tighten up some provisions. Members of the Agape Christian Ministries will return for second reading of a zoning ordinance to allow them to construct a new church on Peaceful Hill Lane in a rural area of South Austin . . . Ballot set . . . Margot Clarke will be first on the ballot in the runoff for Place 5 scheduled for June 7. Brewster McCracken’s name will follow. The drawing for places was held yesterday. The Austin Gay-Lesbian Political Caucus reiterated its endorsement of McCracken, whom they endorsed in the previous election. Early Voting runs May 21-23 and May 27 through June 3. Early voting will be suspended during the Memorial Day weekend (Saturday, May 24 – Monday, May 26) . . . Energy discussion set for next week . . . The Clean Energy Incubator will host a panel discussion, Investments in New Energy Technologies, at the law offices of Vinson & Elkins next Tuesday from 4:30 to 7pm. Featured speakers include Hugh Baker, vice president of Hunt Power L.P.; Greg Romney, vice president for Fuel Cells & Fuel Processing of Chevron Texaco Ventures; and John Rockwell, partner of Advent International. Speakers will share their perspectives and insights on the burgeoning clean energy market, leading trends, recent investments and profiles of perspective companies. RSVP to calenig@ati.utexas.edu . Media inquiries should be directed to Brian Dolezal, TateAustin, 344-2035.

© 2003 In Fact News, Inc.

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