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Double deck lanes could be a particular challenge

Monday, June 2, 2003 by

A plan to restrict 18-wheelers to just one lane on some stretches of I-35 through Central Texas could become a reality in the near future. Austin has officially sent a request to the Texas Department of Transportation to designate a truck lane on the interstate.

Lawmakers approved legislation during the 1997 legislative session allowing major cities to designate truck lanes, with the goal of separating cars and trucks and reducing the number of accidents between the two. Many collisions between 18-wheelers and passenger cars result in fatalities for the occupants of the smaller vehicle. The proposal was implemented on a stretch of I-10 in Houston and received praise from officials in that city’s police department. Other cities were slow to consider the idea, however, until the Texas Department of Transportation sent out a letter reminding them of the option last year.

“At that point, we did get a response, and we’ve been working with them since then,” said TxDOT spokesman John Hurt. Round Rock city officials initially took the lead last summer, with Austin also expressing interest. “We had the Texas Transportation Institute do a study looking at how the truck lanes might affect each lane . . . whether we should put them on the left or on the right,” Hurt said. “The study said it’s really immaterial.”

While the idea has gained favor in Round Rock and Austin, the details of the plan still need further review. Since the law allows the designation of a truck lane on freeways with three or more lanes in each direction, one critical issue still to be resolved is how to classify the stretch of I-35 between 15th Street and 51st Street. “We’re still not sure how to deal with that . . . Right in the middle of Austin is the upper-lower deck split,” said Hurt. “Is that considered four lanes? Where do you put the trucks when you get to that?”

In Houston, a preliminary study by the Texas Transportation Institute showed a 68 percent drop in the number of crashes on the portion of I-10 with the restriction on trucks. Trucking industry groups are concerned that limiting big rigs to only one lane could lead to an increase in congestion on the interstate, especially at key access points. They also point to the increased traffic enforcement by Houston police as a possible factor in the decrease in accidents there. Before any new restrictions on I-35 are put into place, TxDOT will solicit input from the public and from trucking organizations whose members would be affected.

City Council to consider zoning change this week

The zoning change for the proposed new location of Children’s Hospital at the former Robert Mueller Airport sailed through the Planning Commission Wednesday with only a few concerns voiced by neighborhood residents and Planning Commissioners. The zoning change from aviation services (AV), to planned unit development (PUD) is on a fast track for consideration by the full City Council this week.

The vote in favor of the zoning change was 6-0. However, Commissioner Cynthia Medlin made clear that her vote on the zoning change did not reflect her position on the Seton Healthcare Network. “I’m going to go ahead and support this, but it is reluctantly because I have very strong feelings about how the entire Children’s Hospital and City of Austin ‘takeover’ has occurred,” she said. “Also, the problems in the past with Seton and their contractual relationship with the City of Austin. I have very negative feelings about that. The only reason I am supporting this is because I support a new Children’s Hospital.”

Neighbors of the old airport site had specific questions about traffic, building size and noise related to the helicopters that could be used to transport patients to the facility once it is built. “There is the issue of the helicopter trips,” said Stephen Kreger of the Upper Boggy Creek Neighborhood. “I think there ought to be some discussion about the number of trips, how low they’ll be flying, how much noise they’re going to be making.”

Other concerns have been raised about the traffic impact of a major employer on the site, especially on 51st Street and its intersection with IH-35. Jim Walker with the RMMA Redevelopment Advisory Commission told Planning Commissioners that Catellus, TxDOT and representatives of the Windsor Park Neighborhood Association were attempting to resolve those issues. “The Windsor Park Neighborhood Association has voted on principle to oppose the redevelopment of this corner until the I-35/51st Street intersection is resolved,” Walker said. But he also indicated that many individual residents recognized the benefits of having Children’s Hospital in the area.

Seton representatives laid out some of their plans for parking at the site. “In our first phase, we’ll have a structured parking garage that relates to the professional office building,” said Seton planner Bob Moroz . “The remainder of the parking will be surface parking in that phase. Our ultimate project . . . has almost all the parking in structures.” Other office buildings on the tract, Moroz predicted, would mask those structures.

Hospital district can move forward . . . The passage of HB 2292 means that Travis County may have an election on formation of a health care district. The omnibus reorganization of health and human services legislation includes language that “will enable us to go forward with most things we were seeking in the special bill,” according to Austin's Government Relations Officer John Hrncir. Hrncir said the new language covers transfer of a hospital and other health care facilities within Travis County. Williamson County is not included in the legislation . . . Apparent victory for Lowe’s . . . City lobbyist John Hrncir confirmed last night that both the House and the Senate approved the conference committee report on HB1204 on Sunday, giving Lowe’s the apparent right to build the store it has fought for in the Sunset Valley area over the recharge area of the Barton Springs zone of the aquifer. Both Austin and Sunset Valley had opposed the bill. Sunset Valley will issue a press release Monday, according to Mike Blizzard of Grassroots Solutions, who represents the small city. Lowe’s has sued Austin over the city’s refusal to recognize the company’s grandfathering claims. SOS Alliance spokesman Brad Rockwell told In Fact Daily the organization would continue to try to save Barton Springs, but he was very disappointed that the bill had been approved. He particularly scolded the chief sponsor, Senator Jeff Wentworth (R-San Antonio), saying that Barton Springs had survived for hundreds of years but could be killed through the actions of one legislative session. SOSA says the Lowe’s store would put nearly five times the impervious cover allowed under the SOS Ordinance at the site. The bill also states that when there is a disagreement between the city and the county in a road plan, the plan of the metropolitan planning organization—in Austin’s case, CAMPO—prevails. Cities and counties were forced to come up with the same rules for subdivisions in the ETJ by previous legislation. But Austin and Travis County have not reached agreement on several roads in Southwest Travis County. The bill would also force the two to go into arbitration if they have not reached agreement on all issues by Jan. 1, 2004. Hrncir said the conference committee report deleted language that would have required cities to zone all newly-annexed land as single-family. Austin routinely zones new property as I-RR (Interim Rural Residential) for unplatted land and platted land with lots larger than acre. Otherwise the initial designation is I-SF-2 (Interim-Single Family 2) . . . Voting continues . . . Nearly three percent of Austin voters have turned out so far to cast ballots in the Place 5 runoff. The total so far is 11,522. Travis County reported last night that 1,256 voters made their choices on Friday and nearly 1,600 voted Saturday. The number dropped to 530 Sunday. The last day to vote early is Tuesday. Election Day is Saturday . . . HLC meets tonight . . . The Historic Landmark Commission will hold a special called meeting this evening at 7pm. Commissioners will discuss whether to recommend historic zoning and an addition to property at 110 W. 33rd Street. Also, commissioners will decide whether to recommend granting a demolition permit for a residence at 2508 Jarratt in the Old West Austin National Register Historic District . . . Sine die today . . . There will be a lot of celebrating in Austin tonight because it’s the final day of the 78th Legislative Session. Some will celebrate accomplishments and others will simply celebrate having survived. The Legislative Study Group and some of its Democratic friends sent out an email party invitation that quotes Oliver Cromwell, dismissing the Long Parliament on April 20, 1653: “You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”

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