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Transportation advisors seek protection of bike lanes

Wednesday, June 23, 2004 by

Toll road planners unsure how to handle bike/pedestrian facilities

The Urban Transportation Commission this week approved a series of recommendations on the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority's $2.2 billion toll road plan.

Chair Michelle Brinkman's goal for the board this year is to tackle broader transportation issues from a policy perspective. With CAMPO's Transportation Policy Board scheduled to take a vote on the Central Texas RMA plan on July 12, the UTC is weighing in on the plan.

Commissioner Tommy Eden, a bicycle advocate who frequently asks CAMPO members for more bicycle facilities, initially joked that he could think of little he wanted to support in the CTRMA plan. Eden's comment reflected the concern of the bicycling community that the proposed toll road plan would eliminate bike lanes from Loop 360.

The UTC has been heavily weighted towards non-automotive transportation. As a result, a number of the recommendations are directed to the bicycle and pedestrian component of the toll road plan. Commissioner Michael Dahmus, who reviewed plans for Loop 360 posted on the CTRMA website last week, said it would be impossible to add lanes to the expanded road, especially to Pennybacker Bridge over Lake Austin.

Hence, the UTC offered two recommendations geared specifically to Loop 360. First, the UTC wants to make sure that any new bicycle facility along Loop 360 will provide the same size and capacity as the current bike lanes on the bridge. And second, the group wants to make sure the CTRMA, or its franchisee, replaces bike lanes with equivalent facilities when the overall Loop 360 toll project is completed.

As Dahmus pointed out, the goal is to simply replace what the citizens of Austin already have paid to build on the Pennybacker Bridge.

The question of bike lanes on Pennybacker Bridge was raised during at least one public comment session. CTRMA Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein admitted that the issue of the bike lanes had not been resolved and suggested that the CTRMA might have to consider a pedestrian/bike bridge alongside Pennybacker.

In a review of the toll plan, the UTC also recommended:

• That revenue generated in a particular corridor should be used for the maintenance of the roadway in that corridor or future mass transit projects;

• That bicycle lanes and pedestrian sidewalks should be added where the cost is not excessive and the density makes the construction feasible. The board stressed that pedestrian crossings should be geared to anticipated, not current, population density;

• That toll roads should not diminish current capacity. In other words, if the current road has grade separations, then that should be preserved. Dahmus pointed out that promises to maintain grade separations on Bee Caves Road and RM 2222 had been made on Loop 360; Eden would like similar promises for US 183; and

• That toll projects should not be viewed as supplanting any revenue the region would have gotten from state or federal sources. In other words, Austin should not be passed over for federal funding for future roads—and the money given to other regions of the state—because it chose to create a toll road system, Brinkman said.

CAMPO has posted 579 pages of feedback on the toll road plan. The UTC's comments will be presented to Council members on the board and other relevant parties. The last day to offer written comments for the toll road plan is Thursday.

BOA rules against neighbors in duplex case

Duplex use on 37th Street established long ago

After hearing many of the same arguments about the status of a duplex on West 37th Street as members heard last month, the Board of Adjustment offered up the same response Monday night. On a split vote, the board upheld the staff's decision that the home at 313 W. 37th did not need a variance to qualify for a duplex use.

The board heard the case as a reconsideration requested by two neighboring property owners. In the original case, the board voted 2-3 in favor of the staff's decision. Over-ruling the staff would have required four votes, so the decision stood. In the reconsideration, Board Chair Herman Thun and Board Member Laurie Virkstis again supported the staff, with Board Members Betty Edgemond, Leanne Heldenfels and Barbara Aybar siding with neighbors and the North University Neighborhood Association. Attorney Rachel Rawlins, representing the neighbors, argued that the home was actually a single-family residence and was not suitable for a duplex because the lot was too small. But since it takes four votes to overturn a previous decision, the determination was again upheld.

Rawlins did present some new evidence in making her case before the board, but many of the arguments were similar. The home, she said, had never been legally and conclusively established as a duplex. Through decades of single-family use, she argued, any duplex claim had been lost. "One thing that we're forgetting to look at . . . it has to comply with the requirements in effect when it's placed on the record," she said. "That's before 1950. This property may have been illegally used as a duplex after 1950, but there is no city record of any duplex ever, let alone before 1950. The use on the city records in 1986 and 1988 is as a single-family unit . . . It had a single homestead exemption on it. When we look at duplex residential, the definition is the use of a site for two dwelling units. It was not used for two dwelling units; it was used as one."

But Luci Gallahan with the city's Watershed Protection and Development Review Department told the board there were other signs that the home had indeed been a duplex, including two separate utility meters. "What I observed was the definition of a duplex," she said of her inspection of the site. "Two separate living areas, two kitchens, two utility meters." She noted that the duplex use had been established several decades ago, and the lack of records from that time period was not surprising. "We didn't want to penalize someone because the city did a bad job of documenting permits 40 years ago," she concluded.

Heldenfels, who was one of two original votes in favor of the staff's decision, said her opinion had not changed. "It's when the lot was placed on the record, not when the duplex was built on the lot," she said. Heldenfels also offered some reassurance to the more than one dozen neighbors who signed up in favor of the appeal. The decision, she predicted, would not substantially change the character of the surrounding neighborhood. "Everybody's jumping up and saying, 'That's all of Hyde Park! Everybody can do a duplex!' No! Only if those lots that were platted and placed on record prior to that date 1950 had a duplex use established on them," she said. "It doesn't mean you can come in and convert a single-family home into a duplex. The reason why that doesn't create a huge concern for me is because . . . those situations are rare. They are there—this was one—but I don't think it's something that should cause concern in the neighborhood."

Unlike the Planning Commission or Zoning and Platting Commission, the Board of Adjustment's decisions are not subject to review by the City Council. Since the board is a quasi-judicial entity under state law, any appeal would come in the form of a lawsuit filed in state district court.

City to have Ethics Czar . . . Assistant City Attorney John Steiner, who has been an expert on the City Charter, ethics and campaign rules, will leave the city Law Department to begin the city’s Integrity Office. City Manager Toby Futrell notified the City Council by memo of Steiner’s selection to take the new job. “My goal is to establish a Municipal integrity program that will set the national standard and enhance Austin's reputation for good government. The integrity office will provide a central resource for the questions and concerns of management, staff and board and commission members on matters of government ethics and public integrity,” Futrell wrote. The manager intends for every city employee and commission member to have integrity training, according to the memo. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman has also put a resolution on this week’s Council agenda to begin review of the city’s ethics and conflict of interest rules relating to board and commission members. Goodman said she was pleased about the establishment of the office and has an immediate task for Steiner. Steiner told In Fact Daily he would be working to set up the office during the next few months and expects it to be fully operational by the start of the new fiscal year on October 1. He will maintain his office in the law department until the opening of the new City Hall, he said, at which time he will probably have an office on the second floor. He noted that he has been giving advice on ethics questions for quite some time. Before coming to the city Steiner worked for the state Ethics Commission. . . BTS official apologizes . . . Sheri Aaron of Bonding and Technical Services sent a letter to the City Council yesterday apologizing to them and to “the People of Austin” for the firm’s violation of state campaign finance laws. A Travis County grand jury is currently investigating the matter, the first solid allegation to come out of the lengthy FBI investigation of BTS and the city’s minority contracting program. In the letter, Aaron said the Nebraska-based company did not realize that such expenditures are illegal in Texas because they are legal in Nebraska. The American Statesman revealed on Sunday that Aaron had admitted to reimbursing its employees “for thousands of dollars in City Council campaign contributions.” Aaron wrote, “BTS has exceeded every goal with regard to our service to the City of Austin in increasing the participation of women and minority-owned business in the City’s public works projects. We at BTS are appalled at the prospect that this record of service might be clouded by this mistake” . . . Downtown Farmer’s Market weekday special . . . The Austin Farmer’s Market will be open today, and every Wednesday, from 11:00am to 2:00pm in Republic Square Park at 4th and Guadalupe. The weekday farmer’s market is specially designed for downtown employees to purchase produce, flowers and even food for lunch . . . Meeting today . . . The Council Committee for the Telecommunications Infrastructure will meet today at 3:30pm in room 304 of City Hall . . . Liveable Vision Awards tonight . . . Liveable City will host its inaugural Liveable Vision Award Recipients celebration this evening at Doña Emilia’s Restaurant from 5:30 until 7:30pm. The organization says, “The award is given to individuals or organizations that have advanced Austin’s quality of life.” This year’s recipients are Roger Duncan of Austin Energy, author Michael Osborne, Solar Austin and Austin Clean Energy Initiative . . . Eastside bus station approved . . . After waiting more than an hour for a quorum Tuesday night, the Planning Commission zipped through its agenda in less than 45 minutes. The Commission approved, on a vote of 5-0, a conditional use permit for a bus terminal at a former gas station at 1140 Airport Blvd. The terminal will be for the Americanos Bus line, a Mexican subsidiary of Greyhound . . . Application deadline coming soon . . . The City Council Healthcare Subcommittee met on Tuesday to review the timeline for selecting the city’s four representatives to the Board of Directors for the new Travis County Health Care District. Applications are due by 5pm next Monday, June 28. The following week, the committee members could begin reviewing applications and put together a short list of candidates to interview in an executive session. The next regularly scheduled Healthcare Subcommittee meeting is July 27, and the full Council could take up the group’s recommendations at its July 29 meeting. Travis County Commissioners are expected to make their four selections for the nine-member board by July 13 . . . Lifeguards to be honored . . . Mayor Will Wynn and other city officials will honor lifeguards who saved a 5-year-old from drowning at Givens Pool last week at a ceremony at the pool at 10:30am today.

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