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Krusee touts communter rail

Thursday, September 25, 2003 by

Project could be done in three years if Union Pacific would agree

Commuter rail could be completed in Central Texas in less than three years for no more than $100 million—if Union Pacific abandons its MoPac freight line, Rep. Mike Krusee, chair of the House Transportation Committee, told a group of transportation advocates last night.

Krusee (R-Round Rock) addressed the annual joint meeting of the Capital Area Transportation Council and the Austin-San Antonio Corridor Council at the Austin Club. Krusee suggested two goals for the region, with the first being completion of a commuter rail line.

While Krusee said he was no fan of light rail, he admitted being a supporter of commuter rail. He told the group that Central Texas is in the unique position of linking three existing rail lines into a commuter rail system:

• Capital Metro owns rail that runs from Leander through Cedar Park through East Austin and the Convention Center.

• The Texas Department of Transportation owns right-of-way along the MoKan line that runs parallel to I-35 from Georgetown south to Round Rock, Pflugerville, Dessau, running to within a couple of miles of Austin Bergstrom International Airport.

• MoPac could provide a key rail link from San Marcos, Kyle and Buda to Downtown Austin, with a spur out to the airport.

“We have a unique opportunity to do commuter rail for a fraction of the price in a fraction of the time,” Krusee told the audience. “If only we could get UP off that line, we could have an incredible opportunity in Central Texas,” he said, referring to the situation where if Union Pacific would abandon its lines, Central Texas could complete commuter rail in years rather than decades, with stations in every suburb of Austin. “We would have what no other city has ever done and do it in record time,” Krusee told the audience. “What a boon to our economy that would be.”

Krusee’s second goal would be to put a medical school on the commuter rail line. San Antonio has biomedical businesses; Austin has high technology companies. A medical school on the region’s commuter rail line, surrounded by teaching hospitals, could be a catalyst for 50,000 new jobs in the Central Texas region.

Krusee was recognized at the meeting with the Pete Winstead Regional Vision Award, which is presented by the Corridor Council each year to a deserving citizen who has made a significant contribution on a regional level. Winstead, the former chair of both the Texas Turnpike Authority and Corridor Council, praised Krusee’s role in passing the recent transportation omnibus bill.

City working on hazardous spill plan to save salamander

Members of the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department staff are working on a response plan to a possible hazardous-chemical spill in the Barton Springs Recharge Zone. The goal of the plan, which is mandated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is to find a way to protect the endangered Barton Springs Salamander in the event of a pipeline rupture or tanker-truck accident that could send dangerous levels of chemicals into the springs.

Members of the Environmental Board got an advance look at the plan, which is still in its very early stages. “One of the first things we did was to find out what other cities and jurisdictions have done when they’ve been presented with this same task,” said Chuck Lesniak with WPDR. “We found out we are inventing the wheel. Nobody else has done this before. Nobody has done a spill-response plan specifically to protect an endangered species.”

The purpose of the plan is to protect the salamander in the event of a spill, either of a hazardous material or one not officially classified as hazardous but still potentially dangerous to the salamander. “We want to prevent a catastrophic impact to the salamander population,” said Lesniak. Since all of the endangered salamanders are located in a small geographic area, a major spill of gasoline or another hazardous substance could lead to levels of contamination that are fatal to the salamander but not to humans.

Although still in the early stages, the plan calls for deploying specialized equipment to contain the substance and keep it away from the springs or recharge features. It would also require special mobile testing equipment to check the water in the springs for contamination more rapidly than standard testing procedures. Should dangerous levels of contaminants reach the springs, WPDR staff would have to decide whether to begin removing the salamanders. “That has its own potential impact,” said Lesniak. “When you start pulling out large numbers of individuals, you can expect a certain amount of mortality. This is not something we would do lightly.”

Removing the salamanders would be a manpower-intensive effort, requiring dozens of city employees from different departments and a phalanx of volunteers. “We would be collecting not only Barton Springs Salamanders, but the Austin Blind Salamander . . . and aquatic plants, invertebrates and other organisms that are part of the Barton Springs ecosystem,” said Lisa O’Donnell with WPDR. “We’d like to have 30 to 40 or more volunteers for the entire rescue operation, if possible.”

Environmental Board members praised the effort staff is devoting to the plan and offered their own suggestions regarding grant funding and recruitment. “Most of the people on this board have connections to various environmentally oriented organizations,” said Chair Lee Leffingwell. “When you start looking for volunteers, don’t forget us. We’ll be glad to help you.”

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

. . . A number of environmental leaders reacted negatively to the trial balloon Mayor Will Wynn put up in yesterday’s American-Statesman concerning possible tax breaks to Wal-Mart as an incentive not to build over the aquifer. Tax rebates are generally used for economic development, as opposed to buying down development intensity. Robin Rather, who is currently involved with Liveable City, said, “This is an expensive and divisive idea. We should exhaust every possible option before even considering giving a penny to Wal-Mart. I don’t think that during an era of reduced library hours, property tax hikes and social service cuts that millions of dollars of incentives to a company with Wal-Mart’s track record is defensible.” Jon Beall, president of the Save Barton Creek Association, agreed: “In this tough economy, it’s no time for a developer—or their client—to be taking advantage of the city when they know big box over the aquifer is inappropriate.” Brad Rockwell, deputy director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, reacted negatively too, saying the city could pass an ordinance to prevent this Wal-Mart and other similar big box developments over the aquifer. “We gave this proposal to the city nearly two months ago. In addition to a No Aquifer Big Box Ordinance, there are additional zoning approaches the city could take that could provide more tools for the city to stop Wal-Mart—at little or no cost to the taxpayer.” Rockwell and other SOS attorneys rarely agree with the city’s lawyers. Some environmentalists have suggested a bond election to finance purchase of the tract as well as two or three other undeveloped tracts large enough to hold any big box development. That idea is still in the talking stage . . .

. . . Wynn joked at yesterday’s Austin-San Antonio Corridor Council meeting that introducing speaker Mike Krusee was a bit like being Mayor, which sometimes meant “doing jobs that don’t need to be done.” He told the audience that included the resolution on the Patriot Act, which will be debated at City Council this evening . . .

Tracy Watson retires

. . . After a total of 25 years of city employment, planner and mediator Tracy Watson said farewell to friends at a reception in his honor yesterday. Watson began his service to the city as a posting draftsman in 1964. Watson recalls that lowly job paid $1.57 an hour, but he was happy to have it. Watson’s departure means the city no longer has its own mediator, but he was happy to pass out his new business card proclaiming that Watson & Associates will soon be open for business. His services will include mediation and arbitration, with an emphasis on urban planning. During a nine-year hiatus from City of Austin work, Watson served as Chief Planner for Portland, Oregon as well as Director of Planning for Orange County, Florida. He returned to Austin in 1986, he says, because, “Basically, Austin is home. There’s not a much better place to live, as far as I’m concerned.” Watson says he feels like he is leaving home now—since he is retiring and won’t see his city friends on a daily basis. City Manager Toby Futrell is on vacation but sent a message via videotape, calling Watson a person of “incredible compassion and people skills.” She said, “I’m a little bit worried that all you’re going to do is charge me more for the same mediation services.” Watson confirmed that he would be happy to do that . . .

Another retirement party

. . . Peter Rieck, who has also had a long career with the city, will step down from his job as director of the Public Works Department at the end of the month. His retirement party is at 2pm Friday at the Zilker Park Garden Center. Rieck said he intends to take a month off and travel through Spain before coming back to Austin, where he will study and finish the exams for his architect’s license . . .

. . . Last night the Planning Commission recommended changing the City Code to allow for administrative approval of a waiver allowing building in the 25- and 100-year flood plain . . .

No raise for JPs

. . . Three Justices of the Peace lost their bid for a pay raise at this week’s Travis County Commissioners Court meeting. Justices of the Peace Richard Scott, Elena Diaz and Herb Evans argued that the recent windfall in judicial fees should have been used to supplement JP salaries, as well as the salaries of other judges in the county. Other judges received a $10,000 pay raise this year. That did not win over the court. A motion by County Judge Sam Biscoe for a $5,000 raise failed. Commissioners voted to deny a raise on a 3-2 split, with Commissioners Karen Sonleitner, Margaret Gomez and Ron Davis opposing the raise and Commissioner Gerald Daugherty and Biscoe favoring it . . .

Tax office to be closed today for move

. . . Travis County Tax Assessor-Collector Nelda Wells Spears will close her office today and tomorrow in order to move the county’s tax collecting personnel to a new location. The Tax Assessor-Collector Offices are relocating to 5501 Airport Blvd . . .

Development fees waived

. . . County commissioners agreed to waive $1.3 million in Development Permit fees on State Highway 130 at this week’s court meeting. The most significant part of the county’s permit review process will be the 15 stream crossings, each of which will require a change in the FEMA Floodplain Map for Travis County. Travis County has already donated $90 million to right –of way for the project, which will break ground next Friday . . .

. . . Austin-Bergstrom International Airport passenger traffic for August 2003 totaled 590,639, down about 1.8 percent compared to August 2002. Passenger traffic year-to-date (January – August 2003) totaled 4,481,656, a 1.5 percent decrease from the same time last year. The number of passengers traveling daily through the airport averaged 19,052 for August 2003. Air cargo traffic at ABIA was down 19 percent last month compared to August 2002..

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