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Mayor announces MoPac walls finally coming

Wednesday, October 20, 2004 by

After 30 year wait, TxDOT to begin work on sound barriers

After 30 years of waiting, the neighborhoods along MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) between Town Lake and U.S. 183 are finally slated to get sound walls installed to reduce the persistent noise created by traffic. Mayor Will Wynn announced the project last night at a meeting of the MoPac Neighborhood Association Coalition.

Wynn said the creation of toll roads on the north and south ends of MoPac made the walls possible.

“One of the elements of the toll road plan was a resolution that any and all revenues collected along the MoPac Corridor must stay in the corridor,” Wynn said. “Part of the resolution was to add the sound walls to MoPac. The approval of MoPac as a part of the toll road project makes funds available for the project.”

“I met with Bob Daigh, the district engineer of TxDOT (Texas Department of Transportation), this morning (Tuesday), and he said he’s ready to get started,” Wynn said.

When MoPac was first proposed in the early 1970s, opponents cited the noise generated by four lanes of high-speed traffic running through a residential neighborhood. Sound walls were supposed to mitigate the noise, but were left out of the final plans as a cost cutting measure, as well as from several subsequent plans for the roadway.

“After 30 years of broken promises, it is finally going to happen,” Wynn said. “Bob Daigh tells me, as of today, he has told his staff to go forward with the sound walls project. They expect to begin some of the sound engineering studies in just the next few days.”

Wynn did not have a date for final completion of the project. However, now that the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) has approved the 2025 Transportation Plan, TxDOT can begin the project using funds it has on hand set against future toll revenues.

The Mayor said the project will be completed with a great deal of input from the neighborhood groups that line MoPac, and from a host of individuals asked to volunteer the use of their back yards to measure the sound from the freeway.

“TxDOT will work with the different neighborhoods to develop a consensus on all aspects of the project,” Wynn said. “They’ll be measuring the noise from rush hour, different days of the week, train traffic. They will work to look at different heights, sizes, designs, and percentages of noise reduction, with the goal of having test walls up by next spring.”

Historic task force agrees on abatements

At their final meeting on the matter, the Historic Preservation Task Force agreed to a threshold for tax abatements on owner-occupied historic buildings Monday night, but the vote came with a whimper rather than a bang.

The Council-appointed task force, minus its newest member, Charlie Betts, settled on a gradual rollback of tax abatements after a number of failed motions. The city's current policy abates taxes on 100 percent of the value of the structure and 50 percent on the value of the land. That abatement is a perpetual one that never expires, as long as the property is maintained in a condition considered satisfactory by the city—or until the law changes.

Under the proposal set forth by Commissioner Keith Jackson – after a number of failed motions and some stalled discussion – the tax exemptions, currently at 100 percent of the structure's value, would be rolled back to 85 percent over 3 years, decreasing by 5 percent per year. A cap of $2,000—or 50 percent of the tax bill—would also be put into place over three years.

The motion also included another major concession supported by the preservation community: returning the tax abatement policy to the 50-year threshold. Under the proposed policy, a house could be designated historic at 50 years but would not be eligible for tax abatements until 75 years. Chair Betty Baker championed that idea as a way of cutting tax abatements with the least amount of harm.

The final proposal passed 4-1, with Baker voting no. In the end, Baker said she could not support the phasing in of the tax abatement cap. Ex-officio member Laurie Limbacher, who also was at the meeting, did not vote.

A number of earlier motions failed, including one by task force member Jerry Harris to simplify the process by gradually rolling the eligibility for abatements back to 50 years and reducing the tax abatement to 75 percent of the value of the structure. No cap was included. That vote went down 2-3, with only Harris and Baker voting in favor of the proposal.

Harris, a former city attorney and usually the model of equanimity, did grouse a bit about his proposal as he tried to negotiate with Commissioner Terre O'Connell. Harris said he was willing to compromise on the 75-year rule if O'Connell was willing to budge a bit on the exemptions. O'Connell acknowledged the sacrifice, but it was clearly not enough to get her over to Harris' side in his efforts to roll back the tax abatement levels.

"You didn't compromise with me," Harris said. "You gave me nothing to go on."

Commissioner John Donisi also had some hesitation over the vote. Donisi admitted he needed some time to mull over pulling the tax cap out of the final proposal. "We have talked about the 100 and 50 percent and $2,000 cap for months," Donisi said. "Tonight is the first time I've heard of this pulling the tax cap, and I don't feel competent enough to fully understand it based on 45 seconds of discussion."

Patience was a bit frayed among the task force members but they are scheduled for only one more meeting, next Monday at One Texas Center. Jackson said by his calculations the task force has addressed two of its four issues: the 50- versus 75-year route and the solution to the opposition to grandfathering from the City Attorney's Office.

Two final issues now need to be decided: how to reduce the boundaries for historic districts and the percentage of property owners agreeing to initiate the process.

Harris explained, “The existing code and our recommendation is to leave it,” the way it is. He said the current code says a historic district may be reduced if “excluding a historic structure or area supports the character or economic viability of the district.”

Percentages on petitions to create historic districts are also at issue. For now, 30 percent of the landowners’ signatures are needed to initiate an application for a district and 50 percent to proceed through the hearing process for final the approval of the petition. Those levels are still up for discussion.

The City Council is scheduled to consider the revised historic preservation ordinance on Oct. 28. Council Member Betty Dunkerley sponsored creation of the task force about a year ago.

Commissioners looking at peace officer pay

Travis County Commissioners have started to develop a comprehensive compensation plan for the county’s various groups of peace officers. Members of the Commissioner’s Court, especially County Judge Sam Biscoe, have expressed frustration with the lack of a set compensation plan for law officers similar to those in place for the county’s rank-and-file employees.

“We are going to take a two-pronged approach to this so we get good numbers,” Biscoe said.

Commissioners will first appoint an internal team with members from several county departments as well as organizations representing sheriff’s deputies and other officers. That group—which will include representatives from the county purchasing office, human resources, planning and budget, the sheriff’s offices and the constables—will be charged with performing a market analysis and comparing job descriptions and salaries in other urban Texas counties. Commissioners also approved spending up to $50,000 for an outside consultant to analyze the internal findings.

“This will give us a broader scope of the market analysis,” Biscoe said. “There will be two opportunities for input.”

Beyond the initial analysis of the internal group and the consultant, a larger group will be assembled with representatives from all of the stakeholders in the process to give specific input on salary scales, job descriptions and comparisons with similar departments.

“We need to be careful how we compare our salaries with other counties and other agencies,” said Pct. 2 Commissioner Karen Sonleitner. “Some counties will says ‘Well if Travis is here, then we have to be here.’ It can turn into an unwanted arms race.”

The budget process recently completed by the court pointed up problems with the current ad hoc system of paying the county’s peace officers. A virtual parade of associations, groups, sub groups and more came before the court, each presenting a (more or less) convincing case for what they thought they should be paid.

Conversely, the county’s rank-and-file employees work under a codified pay scale—which takes into account factors such as longevity, education, job skills and more. Commissioners must simply determine a percentage of increase (or decrease) to apply to the scale in order to set a new budget.

“We need to develop guidelines for an objective, fair and inclusive process,” Biscoe said. “We need to contact all the affected groups, and find out what their priorities are. We need to know what things they think need to be fixed.”

Commissioners set an October 29 deadline for a report from the internal review committee, followed by an analysis by the consultant. After that there will be input from all of the stakeholders with a final report back to the commissioners by May 15.

Environmentalists endorse commuter rail

Several prominent Austin environmental groups and individuals joined the coalition of business leaders and elected officials Tuesday to express support for Capital Metro’s commuter rail proposal.

”If people don't like being stuck in traffic, then we have to have alternatives. That, to me, is the fundamental logic of this election. If you don't like being stuck in traffic, then vote for commuter rail,” said former Council Member Brigid Shea, who now serves as a Board Member for LiveableCity. “Vote to begin building an alternative transportation system. That's what we're starting with this election.” Shea was one of the founders of the SOS Alliance, who joined members of the Save Barton Creek Association and the Sierra Club in front of the Barton Springs Pool to encourage people to vote for the Leander-to-Austin passenger train service.

The environmentalists praised Capital Metro’s plan as one that would help alleviate traffic congestion, and the resulting pollution, by getting drivers out of their cars and onto trains. “We believe this is a golden opportunity to get some of our commuting citizens on to rail, a more environmentally friendly choice than just the automobile. It's our hope that commuter rail between Leander and downtown will foster more commuter rail, as well as badly-needed urban rail transit in the city as realized through the Envision Central Texas exercise,” said Donna Tiemann, Conservation Chair for the Austin Sierra Club.

Other long-time environmental activists said voters should support the rail plan because it would help steer growth away from the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone. “For 30 years, this community has said over and over again we do not want to sprawl out over the aquifer,” said George Cofer. “The proposed commuter rail line is going to consolidate our growth in the appropriate corridors. It's going to provide this community with an important starting place so that we can address those sprawl issues and create a more compact city. It's an exciting opportunity.”

Some of the claims made by environmental leaders are challenged in an e-mail being circulated by Texas Monthly Publisher Michael Levy, who opposes the commuter rail proposal. He calls the plan “an extremely stupid idea that just does not make any economic or practical sense.” According to Levy, the number of riders once the trains begin service would not justify the cost or make an appreciable dent in the region’s air quality problem. “Given the maxim among transportation planners that a community should not go to a rail system until its bus system is close to maximum utilization, when was the last time you saw a big (and very expensive) Cap Metro bus with more than a few riders on it?” Levy asks in his letter, which also includes an analysis of the proposal by critic Jim Skaggs.

But the environmental activists gathered at Barton Springs on Tuesday said Levy and Skaggs were not using the correct ridership numbers and pollution figures in their argument. “The truth is, a person on a rail car emits one-fourth the pollution as a person driving their automobile by themselves to work. So this could reduce air pollution significantly at very little cost,” said Jim Marston with Environmental Defense. “This is the beginning. This program along will not solve our air pollution problem, but it is a step in the right direction.”

ZAP report . . . If you have a case scheduled before the Zoning and Platting Commission on November 2—Election night—vote before 6pm. Commission Chair Betty Baker suggested last night that the group might want to postpone its usual 6pm start time to allow for the polls to close. But she was alone in that thought. Other commissioners wanted to get the meeting done so they could watch the election. So, that might be a warning to those who have complicated cases. If it’s set for November 2, consider the commissioners’ wishes . . . Cases postponed last night: City staff asked to postpone a Parks Department request to change the zoning on land at 12100 MoPac at FM1325 from mf-2-CO to P (public) and the staff asked to postpone hearing a case for the International Bank of Commerce, which wants to rezone property on FM2222 from GR-CO to GR. Both of those cases were reset for November 2 . . . A zoning request from the St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, which wants to change its PUD zoning to allow for construction of a multi-family development, rather than the office and retail development agreed to long ago, will be heard on November 16. (See In Fact Daily, October 8, 2004.) Agent Jim Bennett also agreed to a one-month postponement of his client’s request to rezone a site at 1209 Kinney Avenue from single-family-3 to mf-3, at the request of two neighborhood groups . . . Vote carefully . . . Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman tells In Fact Daily that some people might inadvertently be missing out on their opportunity to vote on the commuter rail proposal. Since the measure is at the end of the ballot, separated from the high-profile Presidential and Congressional races at the top, some voters could accidentally hit “send” on the E-Slate voting system before they select “for” or “against” on the Capital Metro proposal. Also, those voters who select “straight party” for their vote will need to remember to also vote on the Capital Metro proposition, since it is neither a Democratic nor a Republican measure. Tina Bui, aide to Council Member Daryl Slusher, said their office had received complaints from some voters who did not find the rail proposal on their ballots and left the booth without voting on that issue . . . Outside the polling places . . . Leaders of the Austin Toll Party ran into a snag on Tuesday as they fanned out to Early Voting locations across the city to target registered voters for their recall petition. Many of those early polling locations are on private property, and petition-drive organizer Linda Curtis reports their volunteers were asked to leave several locations. Curtis ran into a similar problem with the HEB grocery store chain when gathering signatures to help then Council Member Beverly Griffith gain a place on the ballot two years ago (see In Fact Daily, April 5th, 2002) . . . Voting continues at record pace . . . Slightly more than 6 percent of Travis County’s registered voters have already cast ballots after the second day of Early Voting. The two most popular places to vote both Monday and Tuesday were Northcross Mall, with a two-day total of 3,081 votes cast and the University of Texas with 2,649 voters casting ballots. Early Voting continues through October 29 at locations around the city. Mobile polling locations will be at the Conley-Guererro Senior Center, the Island on Lake Travis, the LBJ Building, the Travis Building and the Winters Building today. .. Downtown traffic warning . . . The city's general contractor plans to close one lane of Guadalupe between Second and Third from 9am to 4pm each day for the rest of this week. Weather permitting, they are scheduled to finish the street reconstruction of Second Street from Colorado to San Antonio this weekend . . . Tonight’s meetings . . . The Environmental Board will meet at 6pm in Room 325 of One Texas Center. This will be the final meeting for Chair Lee Leffingwell, who is stepping down in preparation for running for the Council next spring. Leffingwell told In Fact Daily that he would conduct the election for the new chair but would not participate in the vote. The Downtown Commission will meet at 5:30pm at Waller Creek Center.

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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