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City leaders unveil gas optional hybrid plan

Tuesday, August 23, 2005 by

Campaign to convince auto makers of market for plug-in cars

Mayor Will Wynn Monday tossed out Austin’s opening pitch in a nationwide campaign to promote the development of new plug-in hybrid vehicles. Those are cars which have both gasoline and electric powered engines, with additional batteries that can be recharged by plugging into a traditional electric socket.

“The battery pack would provide sufficient power for 50 miles or so of commuting, which could cover a significant portion of many drivers’ daily trips,” said Mayor Wynn. “For many Americans, much of your day’s driving could be done without using any gas at all. Imagine a car you only had to fill up every month or so.”

In order to speed up development of the vehicles, Austin Energy is offering rebates to businesses or government entities that purchase them. The city is also pledging to add the plug-in hybrids to its fleet, starting with a test vehicle from Daimler-Chrysler next year. The Mayor is also leading a petition drive from citizens asking automobile makers to accelerate production of the new vehicles.

Joining the Mayor was a majority of the City Council, T ravis County Commissioner Karen Sonleitner, executives from Austin Energy, community clean-energy advocates, and Congressman Lloyd Doggett. Using more plug-in hybrid vehicles, said the Congressman, would reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil. “It’s a national security issue,” he said. “So many of the tragic and unnecessary foreign entanglements in which we find our young people around the world are closely related to what we’re doing this morning, our insatiable desire for more and more fossil fuels.”

With the rising cost of gasoline, demand for the plug-in hybrids could be strong once they become readily available. Austin Energy officials estimate that the electric equivalent of a gallon of gasoline would only cost 70 to 80 cents, compared to current gasoline prices of $2.50 or more per gallon.

By shifting transportation costs to the electric grid instead of gasoline, the city could benefit both economically and environmentally. “Plug-ins represent a revenue source for electric utilities. This means transportation dollars end up staying in our community rather than going out of the country,” said Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce Chairman Kirk Watson. “Those dollars will have a huge impact on the Austin economy. We have an advanced battery technology firm right here in Austin whose lithium ion batteries are used in popular hybrid cars. They would be a potential provider for the batteries needed in plug-ins.”

The Chamber of Commerce will be supporting the petition drive effort, which organizers hope will collect 10,000 signatures from Austinites by the end of the year. More information can be found on-line at http://www.pluginaustin.org, or by contacting Lisa Braithwaite at pluginaustin@austinenergy.com, or ( Mary Ann Neely, who is serving as project coordinator).

“Imagine this same effort underway in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and all across this country,” said Mayor Wynn, “truly sending a strong message to auto makers and policy makers that America wants and needs these types of vehicles now.”

Panel recommends new group run access channels

The Austin Telecommunications Commission voted Monday night to recommend that a new organization operate the city’s three public-access cable TV channels. The vote was based on the information provided by a committee made up of city staffers that reviewed and scored the three proposals submitted in response to the city’s request-for-proposal (RFP).

The current management entity, Austin Community Access Center, turned in a bid, along with two other organizations. Rondella Hawkins with the City’s Office of Telecommunications and Regulatory Affairs told commissioners that a group called Public Access Community Television, Inc., or PACT, had scored the highest on the 100-point matrix established by the committee. “It’s a group that was newly-formed to respond to the proposal,” said Hawkins. “This group has extensive experience in video production as well as extensive technical background and work in the non-profit sector.”

The group’s incorporation papers filed in July with the Texas Secretary of State’s Office list three members of the Board of Directors: Linda Litowsky, Gary Wilkison, and Helene Caudill.

Litowsky owns L&M Productions and has more than 28 years of film and video production experience, including documentaries, educational films, and programs on national broadcast and cable TV networks. She has also been involved with VSA Arts of Texas, a non-profit agency which works with people with disabilities.

Wilkison has experience in the technical side of audio and video production, serving as a design engineer with a local technology engineering and consulting firm, while Caudill is an Assistant Professor of Management at the New College at St. Edwards University. The group does not have ties to current program producers or current or former members of the ACAC Board of Directors.

“In terms of training, we felt that this proposal stood out and was very strong in meeting the components of training that we were looking for,” said Hawkins. “Really innovative solutions as far as training were proposed. Also, I think the technical aspect of the proposal itself was very strong, as far as looking at the existing equipment and resources and how to maximize the utilization of the channels and how to quicken the time between when a producer creates a program and getting it on the air.”

The city’s RFP specifically called for upgrading the current technology, training programs for producers, conducting an annual satisfaction survey of producers, requiring annual training for board members, and establishing a promotion and community outreach program. Some of those criteria, such as the training for board members or the survey of producers, could help address issues that have been raised over the past year as a contingent of producers have battled with board members of ACAC.

“I think one of the big concerns has been financial accountability,” said Chip Rosenthal, who asked for further details on how the PACT proposal was superior in that area. “It was very focused on the customer, the end user,” said Hawkins. “They demonstrated a lot of areas where feedback from the producers and viewers would be provided. We did require in our scope of work that the contractor would provide annual audited financial statements, and added on to that was that the independent auditor would make a presentation to the Board and we would make sure that they were authentic.”

Commissioners Wendell Ramsey and Rosenthal voted against recommending the PACT group, but both said their vote did not reflect a lack of confidence in the new organization. “There is concern with the process we’ve had to go through, having limited information to make this assessment,” said Ramsey. But the other four commissioners supported the recommendation, which passed on a vote of 4-2.

City Hall café on slow train to opening

The anticipated opening of the Austin Java Café at City Hall, initially slated for late August or early September, has been delayed and is not expected before the end of February. Assistant City Manager Laura Huffman announced the delay in a memo to the manager and Council, also outlining a new service beginning this week in the first floor vending area.

Huffman explained that Austin Java's owner did not want to begin construction until lease negotiations were completed. Once the city and owner Rick Engel began negotiations, they realized that they would have logistical problems with the space and that construction on Block 21 might affect the number of customers drawn to the café, according to Huffman.

Project Manager Jan Stephens told In Fact Daily that the city had agreed to collect rent on a percentage basis, foregoing the $3,000 per month originally anticipated when the deal was struck in March. She said the city would receive 6 percent of gross sales on to sales of up to $500,000. With sales between $500,000 and $800,000, the city would receive 7 percent, and if sales reached $800,000, she said, the city would receive 8 percent.

Stephens admitted that the city would be risking more but might also make more once the Second Street district takes off.

One of the problems facing negotiators was lack of a rear exit. "We had thought the tenant would be OK with using the front doors for deliveries and trash removal,” Stephens said. But that was not the case. “We were able to design a hallway and change the space in the City Clerk's Office so there would be a rear exit," she said.

Two other matters that have bogged down construction are the city's energy efficiency requirements and the need to meet MBE/WBE regulations. However, Stephens said Engel has been understanding about city rules. Engel was reportedly out of town and not available for comment.

According to Huffman's memo, city management has arranged for Texas Coffee Traders to provide espresso coffee drinks as well as a limited breakfast and lunch menu from 7:30am to 2pm (and during City Council meetings) that will continue until the café is open, she wrote.

Huffman also reported that the city is working with Urban Partners to find a retailer who wants to operate the Austin City Store in partnership with the city.

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

First time around . . .The Council’s Land Use and Transportation Subcommittee held its inaugural meeting yesterday with Council Members Betty Dunkerley, Brewster McCracken and Lee Leffingwell in attendance. McCracken nominated Dunkerley to chair the panel, but Dunkerley countered with a substitute motion to nominate McCracken. Leffingwell broke the tie and McCracken was elected chair. The subcommittee also voted to meet on the second Monday of every month. . . . Public Meetings . . . The Council’s Public Health and Human Services Subcommittee meets at 3:30pm in the Board and Commission Room at City Hall. On the agenda is a report from the Mayor’s Task Force on Mental Health. . . The Planning Commission meets at 6pm in Council Chambers at City Hall. On the agenda are three public hearings on amendments to the City Code, and the election of board officers. . . The Parks and Recreation Board meets at 6:30pm at PARD Headquarters, 200 South Lamar Blvd. On the agenda is the approval of a resolution in support for the Town Lake Park Master Plan and interim solution for Riverside Drive. . . Travis County Commissioners meet at 9am in the Commissioners Courtroom at 314 W. 11th St. Commissioners will consider and take action on recommendations from the Citizens Bond Advisory Committee . . . The Williamson County Commissioners Court meets at 9:30am in the Pct. 3 JP Courtroom, 301 S.E. Inner Loop in Georgetown. The Court will hold a public hearing on, and vote on the 2005-06 County Budget. . . Education roundtable . . . Dr. Larry Faulkner, president of the University of Texas at Austin, and Dr. Stephen Kinslow, president of Austin Community College, will headline the next Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce-IBM Education Roundtable this Friday and share their views on the challenges ahead for higher education.. Faulkner will review the research, technology transfer and workforce capability in clean energy, automotive telematics and other University of Texas research centers. Kinslow will talk about emerging workforce training programs for wireless, digital convergence and advanced manufacturing and other ACC initiatives. The event is scheduled at 7:30am in the F oothills Ballroom at the Hyatt Regency Austin at 208 Barton Springs Road.

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