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Barrientos complains about three-way split of county

Thursday, October 9, 2003 by

Sad fate for the district of Johnson and Pickle, says Senator

Senator Gonzalo Barrientos used an impromptu press conference after Wednesday’s Senate session to express his continuing distress over the destruction of Austin’s 10th Congressional district.

Conservative Republican Lamar Smith represents Austin on the west and progressive Democrat Lloyd Doggett represents Austin on the east, and that suits Barrientos fine. Under the proposed map, Austin would be split three ways into three very different districts, a configuration Barrientos compared to “a surrealistic artist’s rendering of some kind of prehistoric animal.”

The newly configured Congressional District 10 stretches from Austin down to Loop 610 in Northwest Houston. Almost 161,000 people in this proposed district would come from the Houston-Harris County area, Barrientos said. This district is open, although the suburban element in the configuration gives it a Republican lock.

“They talk about the ‘Houstonization’ of Austin,” Barrientos told reporters. “This gets us closer than ever.”

The second district, the proposed Congressional District 21, would stretch from the suburban fringe of Williamson-Travis counties down to San Antonio. The State Capitol and the University of Texas would be in this district, which Barrientos said would make as much sense as putting the Alamo in an Austin-centered district.

CD 21, like Senator Jeff Wentworth’s state district, would pick up Austin’s south-side Democrats, creating a district composed of very disparate communities. This district, still predominantly Republican, is considered a lock for Smith.

The third District, the proposed Congressional District 25, would stretch from Highland Mall down to Starr County on the border. This is the district Doggett could possibly win—should he be willing to move. As the population grows in the south, however, this district’s representative would most likely come from the Rio Grande Valley.

During the press conference, Barrientos spoke of his frustration with lawmakers, “clearly influenced by Washington interests,” who could so calmly divide Travis County, a county that once served as the home to the distinguished service of Lyndon Baines Johnson and JJ “Jake” Pickle.

Harris and Dallas counties both have 2 congressional members wholly within the county, Barrientos said. Bexar and El Paso counties have a congressional member. Tarrant and Travis counties, Barrientos said, are “butchered.”

Asked to respond to Barrientos’ comments, Senator Todd Staples said Travis County is home to 850,000 people and he had every confidence the area was large enough to have a voice in electing its own member to Congress. Questioned whether Barrientos’ Albuquerque absence might have hurt Austin’s chance of creating its own Congressional district, Staples replied that that was a question the media might want to pose to Barrientos.

The media questioned Barrientos closely about whether the Democratic Senators were in range of a filibuster yet. Barrientos would only say, with a wry smile, that the filibuster is a tool given to everyone, Democrat or Republican, under the Constitution. And, yes, it was possible a filibuster might occur between now and next Tuesday, the end of the session.

Restrictive covenant could resolve Southside zoning dispute

A zoning case in South Austin will be back before the City Council today, after a two-week delay, for the property owner and neighbors to discuss outstanding issues. Developer Mario Chapa is seeking permission to turn single-family lots in the 1400 block of Parker Lane into condominiums. His agent, Amelia Lopez-Phelps, had met with surrounding neighbors after the Zoning and Platting Commission hearing, but some remaining nearby landowners objected at a recent Council meeting, prompting the Council to approve the requested zoning change on first reading only.

Chapa is seeking to rezone the SF-3 property to MF-3 in order to build 12 condo units. That was the number recommended by the ZAP as a compromise between the developer’s request of 14 units and the desire by members of the South River City Citizens (SRCC) for the tract to remain single-family. “We have been working for several months with the neighborhood groups and neighboring property owners,” said Lopez-Phelps at the September 25th Council meeting. “We have contacted everyone that would speak to us, including the property owners across the street . . . which happens to be a large apartment complex.” Neighbors told Council members that their concerns about drainage and density had, for the most part, been addressed. “Originally, we were very much opposed to the rezoning of this particular property,” said Kenny Hilbig of SRCC. “We have . . . over the last several weeks . . . been working very diligently to reach a nice restrictive covenant that happened to work for both the immediate surrounding neighbors and the neighborhood association.”

While both sides appeared on the verge of an agreement at the meeting two weeks ago, there were some neighboring property owners who signed up to speak against the zoning change. One of those, Lopez-Phelps told the Council, had declined her previous invitations to discuss the case. The Council passed on first reading a zoning change to MF-2, with development restrictions that will mean a maximum of 12 condo units on the site.

The Council is also scheduled to hear once more from a property owner on Hampton Road who wants to turn a site with three older bungalows into modern housing. Exactly what shape that housing will take was not clear when a zoning request came up two weeks ago. Neighbors concerned that they might have one or more super duplexes on their street, raised objections before the Historic Landmark Commission, which responded by starting the historic zoning process. Council Member Betty Dunkerley told the neighborhood that she did not see the Calcasieu bungalows as historic but said she could understand the fear of super-duplexes. She directed the developer to go into mediation with the neighbors. Today, attorney Nikelle Meade, who now represents the property owners along with real estate consultant Mike McHone, will tell the Council that they need more time. Meade confirmed yesterday that Tracy Watson, who just retired from the city to begin his own mediation business, has been hired to do the mediation. Meade said she expects the case to be postponed to October 30 because Dunkerley will be absent from the October 23 meeting.

Counties bearing start-up costs for Central Texas RMA

Travis County has provided a second year of expenses for the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, contributing half of the RMA’s overhead for the next year of operation. Running the CTRMA is not cheap. And while the Legislature has invested the newly created regional mobility authorities with a lot of authority to put road projects on the ground, it didn’t give them any money for start-up costs. So far, Travis County has budgeted $550,000 for the CTRMA, even before the first shovel has hit the ground. Williamson County is expected to contribute the same amount next year as it did this year—$300,000.

Attorney Henry Gilmore, a Travis County appointee who chairs the CTRMA’s interim budget committee, says he’s comfortable with the start-up budget. In the first year of operation, the group spent $500,000. Next year, that total will be bumped up to $600,000.

“I’m confident we’re not being extravagant in any way,” Gilmore said. “I think our expenses line up with similarly situated authorities.”

Ramping up a regional mobility authority requires time and money, Gilmore said. But the strategy of the CTRMA is to outsource whenever possible. The CTRMA will keep a core of people on staff, but intends to rely on outside private expertise to complete projects, Gilmore said. Instead of a staff engineer for US 183A, for example, the CTRMA is relying on a consultant. The consultant, engineer Richard Ridings of HNTB, also happens to be the former director of the nation’s largest turnpike authority.

Travis County’s $300,000 contribution to the CTRMA budget will be equally divided between Capital Metro Regional Mobility Funds and the county’s own Road and Bridge Fund.

And while the county has already committed a significant amount of money, it no longer has a project picked for the CTRMA to complete. The Texas Turnpike Authority decided that it would build the Southeast leg of State Highway 45, not the CTRMA. That adds up since the success of State Highway 130 is contingent upon getting traffic on that link off I-35 and onto State Highway 130—and the projects must be completed together.

That situation may or may not result in a loss of revenue for the CTRMA. Once TxDOT has constructed SH 45 SE, it could decide it does not want the burden of the toll road’s maintenance and operations and turn the project over to the RMA, Gilmore said. The revenue from that toll road link could be high, since it most likely will handle 18-wheeler traffic that will use SH 130 as a bypass to the more congested I-35.

Travis County commissioners are now evaluating a number of projects to replace SH 45 SE. According to a memo from Transportation and Natural Resources Executive Director Joe Gieselman, 13 Travis County road projects have been identified as possible toll projects. Those that made the cut had to be included in CAMPO’s long-range plan, be completed mostly in Travis County and serve as an expressway or freeway with more than 50,000 vehicle trips per day.

Projects were judged on a number of criteria: proposed range of vehicles per day, proposed volume capacity under the CAMPO 2007 model, connectivity to toll facilities, project cost and the value of the project in an area with limited transportation options.

The four road projects that scored the highest have been labeled “First Tier” projects by Travis County. They are: US 183 High-Occupancy Vehicle Lanes from RM 620 to MoPac; State Highway 71 East, from US 183 to State Highway 130; US 290 West, from FM 1826 to the Hays County line; and US 290 West main lanes west to FM 1826.

Now it comes down to which project Travis County commissioners would prefer. The projects tend to lean heavily toward those outlying northern and southern areas of the county where the county is now seeing the heaviest development.

In the meantime, the CTRMA continues with its operations, including an outreach effort on US 183A. Gilmore estimates the group has spent $500,000 in consulting fees so far. That’s covered a lot of early groundwork: drafting the by-laws and strategic plan, writing and passing procurement and MBE/WBE policies and lobbying both the Texas Department of Transportation and the Legislature.

“I think a lot of efforts have been aimed at getting that first project off the ground,” said Gilmore. “Once the revenue stream starts, in combination with TxDOT money, it will take a lot of the pressure off of Travis and Williamson County.”

Travis County Commissioners have agreed they’re in the RMA for the long haul, and it will be a number of years before the first project, US 183A, is completed and revenue begins to roll into CTRMA coffers. Some of the initial capital rolled into the CTRMA will be charged back to the US 183A project; some of it will not. In the meantime, TxDOT has provided the mobility authority with a $12.7 million toll equity grant to cover initial engineering costs.

The CTRMA will also formulate its own financial plan—based on revenue projects—to take to investors, so it eventually can sell bonds on the US 183A project. More and more future road projects, Gilmore said, will engender such a mix of private/public funding.

“It’s just my opinion, but I think you’re going to see more and more projects like this happen all over the state and the country,” Gilmore said. “Money is no longer going to be as plentiful coming from the federal and state government. We’ve got to come up with that money from somewhere, and I think projects like this are going to be what you’re going to see.”

At last month’s meeting, board members set some ground rules for reviewing current expenses for the RMA, at least until an executive director is in place.

Those ground rules include engaging the entire board in the review of contracts, especially in terms of the scope of work. Disbursements will be approved as part of the agenda each month. And all work authorizations will go through the board’s executive committee. The goal is to make the RMA’s financial business as clear and above board as possible, Gilmore concluded.

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Today’s City Council agenda . . . Expect new arguments over allowing Starbucks to take over a space from the Airport Business Center at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Last week, business center lessee Stacy Dukes Rhone told the Council she had been unable to find a local coffee house to sublease the space. Since then, the Council has heard from a number of local airport vendors expressing their dismay over the idea that Starbucks could end up moving into the airport . . . There may be a squabble between Eckerd’s Drugstores and neighbors along RM 620 and El Salido Parkway as afternoon entertainment . . . Smoking ordinance returns . . . At 2pm the Council will hear a report from the task force trying to reach a compromise on the smoking ordinance, which was approved under the previous Council lead by Mayor Gus Garcia. The health department has proposed some changes that could go a long way to easing the anxiety of bar and restaurant owners in the downtown area. For example, the prohibition on smoking within 15 feet of an entrance would be eliminated and bars that make 70 percent of their money from sales of alcohol would be exempt. At 6pm the Council will hold a public hearing on changes to the city’s sign ordinance . . . Wal-Mart hearing postponed . . . The hearing for a zoning change at I-35 and Ben White to allow construction of a Wal-Mart Super Center will resume at next week’s Zoning and Platting Commission meeting. The commission held a special meeting last night to determine what to do about the item, which it had indefinitely postponed last month while the Council dealt with another proposed Wal-Mart at MoPac and Slaughter. At the time, the ZAP had voted to close the public hearing on the case. But if the commission doesn’t take action within 14 days of closing a public hearing, the case automatically moves to the City Council without a recommendation. “Since I’ve been on the Commission, we’ve worked real hard to send recommendations,” said Commissioner Keith Jackson. “I think we’d be derelict in our duty to just dodge this.” The commission voted 6-3 to rescind the indefinite postponement, with Commissioners Clarke Hammond, John Donisi and John Michael-Cortez opposed. The group also voted to reopen the public hearing to allow further comment. That vote was 8-1, with Commissioner Jackson opposed. Expect members of the South River City Citizens neighborhood association to show up at the ZAP meeting next Tuesday to outline their concerns about allowing big-box retail on the site. The small portion that needs to be rezoned was never changed when the remainder of the tract was zoned for industrial uses . . . Breunig to lead Museum of Northern Arizona . . . Robert Breunig, director of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, has accepted an offer to become the new director of the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff. He has served as director of the Wildflower Center since 1997 and has assisted in efforts to protect the Edwards Aquifer. During his time at the center he has increased the center’s acreage from 43 acres to its current 284 acres. Breunig explained that he worked at the Museum of Northern Arizona from 1975 to 1982 as the museum’s educator, curator and head of the department of anthropology. The museum is now in trouble and needs someone of Breunig’s stature to put it back on the right path. “This was a difficult decision for me, but it is one that enables me to return to a part of the country that I love and to an institution that I was associated with many years ago,” said Breunig. “One of the greatest treasures of my life has been to work with Lady Bird Johnson and I will miss that interaction tremendously. She has been a constant inspiration to me and I know her vision will live on through this institution.” During his time at the Wildflower Center, Breunig expanded the Center’s Landscape Restoration and Plant Conservation programs, as well as its educational offerings. He introduced several new gardens and joined forces with Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew for a worldwide seed collection project called the Millennium Seed Bank Project . . . Green Festival coming this weekend. . . The convention that bills itself as “the nation’s premier event promoting sustainable economy, ecological balance and social justice” will be at the Austin Convention Center Saturday and Sunday. More than 50 experts and 200 exhibitors will make presentations. Featured speakers include authors William Greider, Hunter Lovins and Jim Hightower. Festival participants will be able to explore and purchase state-of-the-art products and services ranging from organic food to socially responsible investments, from eco-fashion to natural health and body care. “This event is evidence that a more environmentally and socially responsible economy has developed and that the mainstream can live well and do good. In every category of commerce, there is a greener alternative,” said Brandi Clark, regional director . . . Honoring innovations . . . Mayor Will Wynn and Council Member Betty Dunkerley last week honored as innovators three businesses chosen by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. The small business winner was the Athens Group. The business, in which every employee is part owner, operates with no traditional bureaucracy, flexible schedules and low overhead. Mike Haney, Susan Dawson and Teresa Ferguson accepted honors on behalf of the company. VIEO, Inc. won the innovation award in the medium-sized business category. Bob Fabbio is CEO and Steve Harriman is VP for marketing. The company developed tools to help information technology managers deal with the explosive growth of web-based products. AMD, the large business winner, was honored for its Opteron processor, which promises to lower technology prices for customers. John Volkmann, VP for strategic communications and Ann Stafford of the community affairs department received the award for the company . . . Council appointees . . . The Mayor’s Committee for People with Disabilities welcomes appointee Denise Sonleitner. Mayor Wynn also reappointed Philip Bellard. Council Member Danny Thomas reappointed Cindy Carroccio to the Animal Advisory Board. The Council also appointed Celia Malin and Keith Warner to the Building and Fire Code Board of Appeals

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