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TxDOT not considering MoPac freight line

Tuesday, June 10, 2003 by

A presentation on the Texas Metropolitan Mobility Plan at last night’s meeting of the Transportation Policy Board for the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization was sidetracked by discussion of whether the idea of freight down the middle of State Highway 130 would ever become a reality.

Steven Simmons of the Texas Department of Transportation was on hand at the meeting to present an update on the state mobility plan. Under the plan, which is yet to be approved by the Texas Transportation Commission, TxDOT would work with the eight largest metropolitan areas in the state to coordinate planning and funding of transportation projects.

TxDOT would provide targeted regional funding for projects, rather than funding on a project-by-project basis. Funding would be based on a congestion management index created by the state, intended to monitor progress in each major metropolitan area. The index would be calculated on population and lane miles for the region, Simmons said.

According to the figures presented by Simmons, the Austin region would be eligible for $272 million over the next 10 years and $926 million between Fiscal Year 2015 and 2029. Those figures do not include $100 million in funding for State Highway 130.

After some discussion of the plan, Chair Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos (D-Austin) raised the question of whether the current plans for State Highway 130 included a freight line. Barrientos asked whether a formal decision had been made on the line.

Simmons said the decision on the freight line currently rests with the Executive Director at TxDOT. Two options were being discussed: a freight alignment along the State Highway 130 corridor and a separate alignment for the freight line. Simmons said the use of the MoKan line down the middle of MoPac was not on the table.

“We’re in favor of developing some kind of freight rail for the east side, whether it’s State Highway 130 or a separate location further to the east,” Simmons said.

That sparked questions from board members, especially Rep. Dawnna Dukes (D-Austin), who represents constituents in East Austin. Dukes said she was frustrated that she had been unable to get a firm answer on who would make the decision on the freight line.

When Simmons was unable to provide an answer, Rep. Mike Krusee (R-Taylor) jumped in. Krusee, who chaired the House Transportation Commission, has recently had meetings with TxDOT on SH 130. He told the commissioners that the grade of the current design for SH 130 precludes the inclusion of a rail line.

The current grade of SH 130 is three percent, Krusee said. To make rail work, the grade would need to be closer to one percent. Without some quick intervention—possibly as early as this summer—freight rail would be unlikely along the corridor, Krusee said.

Krusee favors the inclusion of rail along SH 130. If Union Pacific agrees to move its freight off of MoPac and Central Austin onto a possible SH 130 freight rail corridor, then the MoKan corridor and rail lines through Austin could be used by Capital Metro for a possible commuter rail project, Krusee said.

John Treviño, the Capital Metro representative on the board, confirmed that Capital Metro had broached the issue of commuter rail along the MoKan line. A previous board had approved a route that would connect Leander and Cedar Park, then move down Howard Lane to Airport Boulevard and Lamar. The line would go through East Austin on Seventh Street and down to Fifth Street, before hooking up with Plaza Saltillo.

“We know it’s there,” said Trevino, adding that the board had not given the line serious discussion without a Union Pacific decision. “It’s another option for us to consider, but we’re not getting into it formally right now.”

Dukes said her constituents were concerned that the proposed freight line could pass through Pflugerville and the YMCA property. That no firm alignment has been offered has made it difficult to coordinate proposed projects in the area.

Simmons said he would get back to the CAMPO board with a firmer answer.

Simmons said the Texas Metropolitan Mobility Plan, suggested by Governor Rick Perry and supported in the recently passed House Bill 3588, would provide a regional approach for transportation funding and prioritize projects as funding becomes available.

Dick Kallerman, transportation coordinator for the Sierra Club, said he was uncertain whether the new approach would work, but said that it would mean “big, big changes in the way that we do transportation in this area.”

Such an approach would mean TxDOT would focus its funding on seven major corridors in Central Texas—three of them toll roads—over the next 25 years. The cost of other projects in CAMPO’s Transportation Improvement Plan may have to be shifted to the counties, or possibly to the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority. Such a move could mean more toll roads for the region, Kallerman said.

“Maybe we’ll build toll roads as pay-as-you-go, treat them like they are basically a utility like electricity or water, if it’s technologically feasible,” Kallerman said. “Maybe when you pull out of your drive in the morning, the (cash) register will start. I don’t know what that will mean. Maybe it’ll all be fine. I don’t know.”

Environmentalists lose fight For river flow permit option

San Marcos River Foundation leader says study is a sham

The San Marcos River Foundation’s effort to keep in-stream flow permits alive died in the last hours of the session.

Texas lawmakers were not receptive to the concept of issuing permits in an effort to protect the flow of water along Texas rivers. Environmentalists and their allies fear that the state is overpermitting water rights on Texas rivers, raising serious issues about the health of downstream bays and estuaries.

In March, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) rejected the river foundation’s application for an in-stream permit for environmental purposes. By the end of May, a moratorium on environmental in-stream permits had been tacked onto House Bill 2877 by Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton), a bill relating to TCEQ permits. The bill also proposed an interim study group on the issue.

Lawmakers such as Sen. Ken Armbrister (D-Victoria) did not consider that the delay caused by the interim study to be a serious issue, but Dianne Wassenich of the San Marcos River Foundation said she is concerned that the delay could lead to problems. After the death of House Bill 2877, the interim study was tacked onto a bill about groundwater districts filed by Sen. Todd Staples (R-Palestine), Senate Bill 1639. Wassenich called the study a “sham,” designed to allow further permitting of commercial water rights while attempts to permit environmental flows are stymied.

“Our concern was that it would cause a gold rush on consumptive water rights in the two years of the study, since only conservation (water) rights were stopped during that period,” said Wassenich. “All the groups who care about rivers and bays now will have to be extra vigilant to protect rivers and bays during this study period, across the state.”

Wassenich said that Rep. Lon Burnam (D-Fort Worth) and Rep. Mike Villareal (D-San Antonio) led a last-minute fight on the House floor against the legislation.

“Rep. Burnam was attempting to protect the in-stream flows,” said Les Breeding, Burnam’s spokesman. “Current practice allows practically all the water in a river to be permitted out, in some cases leaving none for wildlife and habitat. We would like to see permitting that would reserve a certain amount of flow, so these bodies are not permitted to run dry.”

Opponents to in-stream flow permits say that the TCEQ already accounts for flow issues, estimating what is necessary to maintain proper in-stream flow.

Thursday, Friday.

Transitions . . . While Richard Arellano and Josh Allen prepare to move into the Mayor’s Office with Mayor-elect Will Wynn, Mayor Gus Garcia is still working in his office and talking to reporters about his tenure and plans for the future. Mayoral assistants Adana Barry, Adam Smith and Cindy Cervantes are all weighing their options. Smith noted that he is hoping to take time off to take a Spanish immersion course in Mexico. Barry said she would like to continue her education, but is not committed to that course if she finds a good position in the meantime. Maria Garza has already taken a job at Capital Metro . . . The new team . . . Josh Allen will focus on community relations. His major duties will include keeping tabs on all the committees and task forces involving the Mayor. Wynn’s executive assistant, Arellano, said he has interviewed a number of candidates and hopes to have Wynn’s decision on who should fill the positions of agenda manager and office manager/scheduler. “We will also likely have some administrative help. We just have not begun the search yet for that, but hopefully we will be able to fill those positions quickly as well,” he said. Arellano added that Wynn is hoping for some reductions in next year’s mayoral budget . . . ZAP meets tonight . . . Though the agenda is fairly light, commissioners and the public could have a lively time when they consider a request for a zoning change from single-family-3 to GR for property at Lamar Blvd. and Bluebonnet Lane. Sarah Crocker is representing the applicant . . . Potentially contentious case postponed . . . The owners of property at 2201 Kinney, close to its intersection with South Lamar will have to wait until next month to find out whether the Board of Adjustment will reconsider their request for a parking variance, which neighbors oppose. Chair Herman Thun planned to recuse himself from the case, but the alternate didn’t show up for the meeting. Crocker, representing the applicant, said she was willing to stay and wait, but Thun motioned to postpone it, “Due to the inability to have five members present.” About 15 neighbors who oppose the variance will have to come back next month also.

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