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WMI moves toward expansion

Thursday, November 11, 2004 by

County power to stop enlargement limited

Waste Management Inc. has addressed the last real obstacle to the approval of its subdivision plat for an additional 130 acres at its landfill site in Northeast Travis County.

The question behind the county landfill ordinance – that malingering ordinance that has never fully been realized or implemented – was whether Travis County had the power to stop Waste Management Inc. or Browning-Ferris Industries from expanding their existing landfills that have been the bane of activist Trek English and her neighbors.

County leaders have considered just about every plausible method to either thwart or delay or divert expansion since WMI filed a short-form subdivision plat in December 2002 to add the 130-acre Wilder tract to its original landfill site. Commissioners have listened to endless hours of testimony on both sides. They have talked about flood plains and odor studies and enforcement powers and height restrictions. They talked about rewards for good behavior and condemnation powers to simply get the landfill operators to move from their current locations to somewhere–anywhere–else.

An industry-community work group, led by a mediator, was formed to hash out an ordinance. That eventually stalled, with the exception of regulations for sludge farms.

Now county commissioners are faced, once more, with the original subdivision plat. Transportation and Natural Resources Executive Director Joe Gieselman told the court that WMI had finally met all requirements of the basic subdivision plat, including the dedication of the 120 feet of right-of-way for what is known in the CAMPO 2025 transportation plan as Arterial A. Arterial A is projected to carry four lanes of traffic, two in each direction.

"We've had a lot of issues with regard to the landfill for months and months, but truly what the role of the staff is on this is to look for compliance with the adopted subdivision regulations," Gieselman told the court. "The one outstanding issue on this plat was the dedication of right-of-way for Arterial A."

Arterial A is actually a portion of what was proposed as the western alignment for State Highway 130. In fact, the portion that now is Arterial A once was projected to be the busiest section of the SH 130 alignment if the western route had been chosen for construction. The Arterial A project, which is expected to be on the short list of candidates for the county's bond issue next November, would connect Parmer Lane to US 290. That's expected to divert a substantial number of trucks now cutting through local neighborhoods.

English threw out as many reasons as she could to oppose the WMI expansion. She said the subdivision plat approval would constitute acceptance of the landfill. She said the 120-foot right-of-way would not be enough for traffic being dumped from Springdale Road, Yager Lane and Harris Branch Parkway. She pointed out that a future commuter rail line might run alongside the proposed landfill expansion. She argued that development to the north would significantly expand the flood plain in the area, which could impact the landfill. She said WMI already has begun boring on the site to begin the process of expansion.

"I understand what Mr. Gieselman has laid out to the Court in terms of your restrictions, but I still think that your Legal Department could pursue some additional research in regard to finding some requirement that would apply in this particular subdivision process, it seems to me," English said.

Gieselman disagreed with her assertion that plat approval implied tacit approval for a landfill expansion. The two decisions – plat and land use – were separate. Environmental Officer John Kuhl said county opposition to the expansion, if commissioners chose to oppose it, would still carry weight when the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality considered the application. Gieselman said a plat note could be added to the three-lot subdivision documents to state that the county's approval of the plat did not imply its acceptance of a landfill.

"With that (right-of-way) provision being met, this plat meets Travis County standards," Gieselman said. "The larger issues have to do with the use of the property for a landfill. We do not regulate that through subdivision regulations and cannot by law. We understand a lot of issues have to do with what Waste Management intends to use this property for after it's platted. I expect (Assistant County Attorney) Tom (Nuckols) would tell you as well, you are somewhat restricted in what you can do in regard to the future use of the property."

Commissioner Karen Sonleitner also pointed out that the blue line that English pointed to on the map was actually the MoKan right-of-way that had been purchased by the Texas Department of Transportation. That right-of-way already is broken up, interrupted by uses such as the Pflugerville park improvements, making it difficult to use it for any kind of rail.

Commissioner Ron Davis had a larger concern, which was just how far the two landfill operators had gotten in their plans to find new sites. The promise to attempt to find new sites was made in April, when the landfill issue was last postponed. The two operators, however, have dealt only with County Judge Sam Biscoe to avoid disclosing competitive information. Biscoe asked, however, for an updated report on the progress for relocation to be put on next week's agenda, along with a decision on the subdivision plat and phasing agreement that were presented to the court yesterday.

Privately, county staff members say that expansion with a piece of land as large as the Wilder tract leaves a lot of options open to WMI. WMI could choose to use only a portion of the land for expansion and come back and plat the remaining space as a transfer station. That means that garbage collection could end up being part of the WMI landfill even after the landfill closes, creating a garbage business that could go on into perpetuity.

RMA hears more of the same from anti-toll folks

The Austin Toll Party dominated last night's Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA) hearing, making the end of toll roads the major theme of the evening, rather than the process of setting toll prices and handling those who fail to pay tolls.

A pre-hearing open house yielded more comments about toll specifics, including suggestions for who should be entitled to discounts on toll roads. After that, an initial trio of speakers offered some comments about toll policies. Those who followed rarely strayed from the theme that tolls would be bad for Austin.

"The group I chose was customer service and violations," Margaret Goforth said of her experience at the meeting. "I feel like a violated customer of CAMPO. The local and state government should not be adding a tax or toll to our roads."

Vincent May of the Travis County Libertarian Party talked about the CTRMA's study of how to spend excess revenues in the region. He called it the "Robin Hood transportation plan" on both a regional and a state level.

"You're going to overcharge the people of East Austin and keep the revenue in the Williamson County region," May said. "They talk about the dangers of Robin Hood. This is the Robin Hood transportation finance plan. It's going to come back and bite us in the butt. I've read (House Bill) 3588, and it says that tolls stay in the region, and while the tolls stay in the region, the governor is taking gas tax out of the region."

Critics of toll roads will gather in Austin this weekend at a summit coordinated by Corridor Watch. The keynote speaker will be Rep. Terry Keel (R-Austin). Corridor Watch, led by David Stall, is critical of the entire 4,000-mile Trans-Texas Corridor project proposed and supported by Gov. Rick Perry.

Some speakers offered specific suggestions or criticism on toll policies. James Moseley, who had studied the revenue projections of a number of roads, said costs looked high on some segments and that revenue from those roads should be spent to repay bonds rather than "pay for politicians' pork," such as sound wall barriers along MoPac.

Randy Barfield suggested the use of congestion pricing or flexibility pricing to reduce congestion on local roads. Anne O'Ryan of Texas AAA, however, was opposed to congestion pricing, for fear that it would penalize those drivers forced to use toll roads during rush hour. She also suggested a review process for rate increases. Any rate increase should fully disclose why the rate increase was needed, how that increased revenue should be used and how long the increase would be in effect, O'Ryan said.

One speaker did ask why high-occupancy vehicle lanes weren't being considered, especially if the purpose of the roads was to decrease congestion. CTRMA board members did not offer a response, but consulting engineer Richard Ridings said afterwards that few toll roads had the level of congestion to offer HOV lanes. One toll road in California, SR 91, does offer a discounted HOV lane, but the minimal use of the lane made the price of its management rather high.

Ridings also clarified a comment made by Texas Transportation Commission Chair Ric Williamson at last month's meeting. Williamson said he would not support state money going to a toll road that had tollbooths. When CTRMA asked Williamson to clarify his statement, Williamson said he meant the majority of lanes should be electronic, with any tollbooths off to the side on the median, rather than in the main lanes, Ridings said.

US 183A, when it opens in 2007, will have tollbooths. On the other hand, the expansion and completion of US 183 and Texas 71 to the airport are expected to be totally electronic, relying entirely on toll tags for payment.

Rep. Dawnna Dukes proposed, at Monday night's meeting of the CAMPO Transportation Policy Board that US 183 and State Highway 71 not be tolled until each stretch of roadway was completed. Asked to respond to Dukes' proposal, Ridings said any proposal to limit tolling would mean adjustments to the revenue forecast. He could not predict the full impact of such a decision.

Ridings did say that it is the intention of the CTRMA not to start collecting tolls on US 183A until the full stretch of the road is completed in 2007. Bonds will be sold on the $173 million project next January, but the first revenue to pay back those revenue bonds won't be collected by the CTRMA until 2007.

Council candidates begin process

Lee Leffingwell, the environmental heir-apparent to Council Member Daryl Slusher in Place 1, started his campaign yesterday by notifying the city that Democratic stalwart Kitty Clark is his campaign treasurer. A retired airline pilot, Leffingwell recently resigned from the Environmental Board, which he has chaired for the past five years.

So far, the only other candidate for Place 1 is Steven Adams, who ran against Council Member Raul Alvarez last year. Adams, like Leffingwell, is an Austin native. He is a Libertarian, as his campaign treasurer, Rob Fritsche. Adams pointed out that while City Council races are non-partisan, “a Libertarian philosophy can be used,” on the Council. He described the current Council as one that has “never found a tax they didn’t like.”

Others filing treasurer designations this week include Margot Clarke, outreach coordinator for the Sierra Club of Texas, community activist Mandy Dealey, and small business owner Jennifer Kim. Clarke named architect Evan Taniguchi to act as her treasurer. Dealey’s treasurer is MariBen Ramsey, general counsel to the Austin Community Foundation and Democratic fund-raiser. Kim named David Buttress as her treasurer. All of these candidates have indicated their intent to run for the seat being vacated by Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman.

Campaign consultant Mark Nathan filed the paperwork for Council Member Betty Dunkerley, appointing the Rev. Joseph Parker as her treasurer. Jennifer Gale, who runs at every opportunity, has started collecting signatures but has not designated a treasurer in the Place 4 race. No one else has indicated any interest in running against the incumbent.

Neither Jeff Trigger, managing partner of the Driskill Hotel, nor Gregg Knaupe, lobbyist for the Texas Hospital Association, has yet to name a treasurer, although both have said they intend to run. Trigger is likely to run in Place 3, but Knaupe has not indicated his preference. Knaupe has hired Mark Littlefield to manage his campaign. Littlefield may be somewhat weary at the moment, since he just finished the successful re-election campaign for State Rep. Patrick Rose (D-Hays County).

Honoring veterans . . . All city state and federal offices will be closed today. A Veterans' Day Parade begins at 9am with participants gathering at the south end of the Congress Avenue Bridge at 8:30 a.m. The parade will be followed by a wreath-laying ceremony on the Capitol grounds to honor America's veterans. This year's event will especially honor the MIA and POW service men and women of the Viet Nam war. Austin Police will close the bridge at 6:45am and re-open it by noon. Parking will be available in the Capitol Visitors Garage at 12th and Trinity . . . Final In Fact Daily for this week . . . Today’s issue is the final one for the week, given the Veteran’s Day Holiday. In Fact Daily will return on Monday . . . Krueger hospitalized . . . The online newsletter Quorum Report yesterday reported that former U.S. Sen. Bob Krueger, 69, had suffered a major heart attack and was hospitalized in his hometown, New Braunfels. Krueger, a Democrat, was appointed to the Senate when Lloyd Bentsen became Treasury Secretary in 1992. He then lost the seat to Kay Bailey Hutchison. President Bill Clinton appointed Krueger ambassador to Burundi and then Botswana . . Dazed and confused taxpayers . . . The Travis County Tax Assessor-Collector reports her office has been receiving calls from some taxpayers confused over a new category on their property tax bills. Nelda Wells Spears says people are asking about the new Travis County Hospital District. “They say they never heard of it,” reported Spears, who cites the low voter turnout in the Hospital District election as one possible reason homeowners might not be aware of the District. Although it may appear as a new line on the property tax bill, both Travis County and the City of Austin lowered their ad valorem tax rates this year to account for the amount collected by the Hospital District. Funding for health care is now the responsibility of the District. For the owner of an average home in Travis County (valued at $197,874), Spears said, the Hospital District tax bill would total $121.31 . . . Gale complains . . . Perennial Council candidate Jennifer Gale was at Commissioners' Court on Tuesday to ask commissioners to refuse to certify the November commuter rail election results. Gale said Capital Metro violated the law by endorsing the commuter rail proposal in both broadcast and print media. The law does allow Capital Metro to provide neutral information to the public on referendums to give voters a chance to make up their own minds on the issue. Commissioners took no action on the request.

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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