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Count goes on in Districts 48, 50

Thursday, November 4, 2004 by

Although the race between District 48 Representative Todd Baxter and his Democratic challenger Kelly White appeared to end Tuesday night with a slight edge for the incumbent, the count is not quite over. Travis County elections administrator Gail Fisher said Wednesday that the county would have to wait until next week before a final determination could be made.

White’s campaign manager Robert Jones said yesterday that he was uncertain about whether White would ask for a recount.

According to the figures released by Travis County, 163 provisional ballots were cast In District 48 on Election Day and during the early voting period. Another 915 ballots were sent to voters overseas that have not been returned, Fisher said. She added that the clerk’s office has made arrangements with the US Postal Service to pick up mail on Saturday night, and those ballots will be counted if they arrive on time. However, she said the county was still working to determine how many of those could impact the outcome of either the Baxter/White race or the race between Democrat Mark Strama and Republican incumbent Rep. Jack Stick.

According to unofficial totals released Tuesday night, Baxter was reelected by only 171 votes out of more than 68,000. Strama ousted one-term incumbent Stick by 556 votes although he may not have an easy time holding onto a district that gave Libertarian candidate Greg Knowles 2,389 votes. The total number of voters in that race was 64,535.

The Travis County Clerk’s Office will turn over a total of 256 provisional ballots In District 50, along with all the other provisional ballots, to County Tax Assessor-Collector Nelda Wells Spears’ employees. That’s because voter registration and elections operations are divided between the two offices and it is Spears’ job to make an initial determination about whether a provisional ballot should be counted, Fisher explained.

A ballot board made up of citizen judges will look at all the provisional ballot affidavits, consider remarks by the election judge and the determination of the registration office as to whether the person was registered to vote, Fisher said. They will then decide whether each ballot should be counted. The affidavits are printed on the outside of an envelope containing the ballot. Remarks from both the registrar's office and the election judge appear on the other side of the envelope, Fisher said.

More studies needed for river ecosystems, says expert

Although the state may be on the right path, it still doesn't have all the answers on questions about what kind of in-stream flows are necessary to protect the ecosystems of Texas’ rivers, bays and estuaries. That was the assessment given the Joint Study Commission on Water for Environmental Flows yesterday.

The concept of environmental flows involves rate of flow, velocity, flow changes and a number of other variables. It’s just the kind of complex topic that Central Texas environmentalists love and developers label as another tool to stop progress. The issue surfaced during the last legislative session when the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) denied the San Marcos River Foundation's request for one million acre-feet of water on the river. The foundation claimed it intended to pick up the remaining unclaimed water rights to the river’s water in order to protect the existing river ecosystem from further degradation.

Science Advisory Committee Chair Robert Brandes, who presented a 158-page report on environmental flows to the joint study commission, said he knew enough to say he didn't have the complete answer on environmental flows ( http://www.senate.state.tx.us/75r/Senate/commit/c890/c890.htm). Brandes said that nothing indicates the state's rivers, bays and estuaries are in critical danger of degradation. However, he cautioned, nothing indicates the state's policies have done enough to protect the long-term viability and health of the state's various water basins.

Already, water permits on the Rio Grande River have exceeded the capacity of the river, the result of six to eight years of drought. Significant flood flows come from across the border in Mexico. That means the mouth of the river has gone dry at the Gulf of Mexico, a serious issue for the long-term viability of the riverbed. In such a case, the state not only has to protect the current flow but also offer incentives to landowners to return water rights, Brandes told commission members.

As members of the committee pointed out, Texas has been more progressive than most states on the issue of inflow studies to water basins, beginning studies on the issue as far back as 1985. And, ultimately, the Texas Instream Flows Study should provide good data on long-term strategies. In the meantime, however, the state must do more to address short-term strategies for ecosystems, Brandes said. Brandes suggested the study commission appoint two groups – one for rivers and one for bays and estuaries – to provide a fuller study of the interim measures necessary on environmental flow issues.

It's probably no surprise a fuller study is necessary for a true assessment of ecosystems. The Lower Colorado River Authority has approved $43 million for a seven-year study of the impact of its plan to sell 150,000 acre-feet per-year to the San Antonio Water Authority. That's roughly the annual water use of the City of Austin.

The Science Advisory Committee, in its recommendations, pointed out that a "one-size-fits-all" approach ultimately would not work for water management. Brandes said this is more of a nod to the fact that the basic strategy for assessing inflow issues might be universal, but that those principles might be applied differently to different bodies of water.

The report recommended the completion of the Texas Instream Flow Studies and better statistical desktop methods for evaluating current environmental flows. The committee also wrote that the Texas Water Development Board's verification process for developing instream flow levels exhibited "scientific shortcomings that must be addressed."

Federal help a top priority for commuter rail project

Top officials with Capital Metro on Wednesday thanked the public for the overwhelming show of support for the agency's commuter rail proposal and laid out their timetable for implementing the " All Systems Go" plan, which also includes Rapid Bus service along with the Leander-to-Austin passenger rail.

"We're very, very happy that it passed," said Board Member Fred Harless, who believes the vote represents a return of public confidence in the transit agency. "During the 2000 election, (opponents) were jumping hard on Capital Metro and their past performance, and I think that's quieted down. We've shown we can run a good bus system…with one of the best riders-per-capita ratio in the country, the best in Texas right now."

Capital Metro plans to continue with its extensive public outreach efforts by soliciting public input on the design of rail stations. In addition, the agency will create Citizen Advisory Boards for different "circulator zones" along the rail route, such as the Mueller Neighborhood or Downtown, where increased bus service is planned to connect those areas to the rail line. Some improvements will be required for the tracks themselves, and work on that is expected to begin in 2005. The agency also anticipates putting out a Request for Proposals for passenger rail cars in March of next year.

Securing federal funding for the rail project will also be a priority. Capital Metro is finishing the studies necessary to submit a formal application to the Federal Transit Administration in early 2005. A key step in that process will be to designate the Leander-to-Austin rail line as a "locally preferred alternative" under federal guidelines, which the Capital Metro Board is expected to do on November 15. While Capital Metro President Fred Gilliam admitted that funding from the federal government was not guaranteed, he did predict the FTA would view Austin's project favorably. "This is probably the lowest cost commuter rail project in the country, and for it not to be ranked very high would be a major disappointment to me," he said. "The merits are there. We've done the studies in the past that justify the rail systems here from the federal side. I'm very confident we'll get our funding."

Implementation of the commuter rail system could also help the push for regional rail service between Austin and San Antonio, said Board Member Fred Harless, who also serves on the board of the Austin-San Antonio Inter-Municipal Rail District. "This could be the starter of a complete regional system," he said.

Although it will likely be 2008 before the first Capital Metro passenger trains connect Leander and the Austin Convention Center, another portion of the "All Systems Go" plan will be in place well before then. Capital Metro intends to begin offering Rapid Bus service in late 2006 or early 2007. "Rapid bus is a faster than normal local service with limited stops, traffic signal priority, and other means to achieve a 20 to 30 percent speed advantage over regular local service," said Rob Smith, Capital Metro's Director of Strategic Planning and Development. The agency is looking at 10 corridors for the Rapid Bus service, providing both north-to-south and east-to-west routes. The first route will likely be along the South Congress and North Lamar Corridor, with subsequent routes serving the Oak Hill area and eventually the Mueller Neighborhood.

Today’s City Council meeting begins at 12:30pm . . . Unfortunately, Council members have the sad duty of attending the funeral of fallen APD Officer Amy Donovan in Georgetown this morning. They are not expected back at the LCRA before 12:30pm and it is not clear whether they will take up the consent agenda or hear citizens communications first. However, with so many zoning cases, each offering a different controversy, it seems a fair guess that folks attending will not get out early tonight . . .Those zoning cases include another visit to the ever contentious Brentwood Highland Combined Neighborhood Plan, consideration of a multitude of restrictions and development regulations for the Rainey Street area, as well as zoning changes for Rainey Street, Red River and the area between Cesar Chavez and Town Lake. The Champion sisters are coming back to ask for modifications to their zoning at FM2222 and Loop 360. Ron Thrower will be hoping to overcome a valid petition against rezoning property at I-35 and Riverside Drive from office and single-family-3 to commercial mixed-use. The neighborhood behind the intersection opposes the change . . . Under items from Council Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman hopes to convince her colleagues to direct the City Manager “to initiate changes to the City Code for zoning and the Neighborhood Planning Process.” Goodman may be hoping to create a new zoning category for the items that are regularly listed as ‘prohibited uses,’ such as pawn shops and adult oriented businesses. That raises the question of what one would call such a category, perhaps GU, for generally undesirable. . . . Water taste noted . . . The City of Austin's Water and Wastewater Utility received about 200 calls this week complaining of an odd taste and odor to the city's water in some neighborhoods. Last night, the utility’s Director Chris Lippe told members of the Water and Wastewater Commission that the taste was due to seasonal changes in the Colorado River. "It's not that unusual this time of year," he said "Typically, it's a die-off of algae." Lippe said the complaints had dropped off after the city provided an explanation in several stories in various media outlets this week, and that the city had also been taking extra steps to treat the water to reduce the taste noticed by customers.

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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