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Austin leads the way on plug-in hybrids

Wednesday, January 25, 2006 by

Mayor, other city officials kick off 'Plug-in Partners' in Washington DC conference

A delegation led by Austin Mayor Will Wynn held a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington DC Tuesday to promote “Plug-in Partners,” a coalition of cities, electric utilities, and other organizations seeking to develop plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.

A growing list of major cities across the U.S., as well as environmental groups and power utilities, has joined the coalition. In addition to Austin, other members of the coalition include Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Seattle, and Baltimore.

Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles would combine today’s new gas-electric hybrid technology with more efficient batteries that could provide an all-electric operating range of 25 to 35 miles or more. The result would be an 80-plus mile-per-gallon vehicle — with even greater fuel economy possible utilizing bio-fuels

Mayor Wynn said the time for plug-in hybrids is now. “Americans understand the problem and Americans will deal with the problem,” he said. “If you will build plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, Americans will buy them. And we will demonstrate that that market exists through this year-long campaign.”

Plug-ins could be recharged by plugging into a standard wall socket, delivering “electric” gallons of gas for about 75 cents a gallon at prevailing electric rates. Such a vehicle could reduce gasoline consumption for the average American by 50 percent to 70 percent and reduce automobile emissions well in excess of emissions that might result from the additional use of power plants.

Wynn said the backers of the Plug-In Partners program have four major goals: to generate pledges of support from participating entities; to engage citizens in a petition drive; to generate “soft” fleet orders to purchase vehicles; and to generate incentives to help consumers purchase vehicles.

“We have serious problems in this country that are not being adequately addressed,” Wynn said. “We have an over-dependence on foreign oil; we have auto emissions creating smog and greenhouse gases; and rising fuel prices that are hurting everyone, every day. This program will address all those problems.”

Wynn said Austin already has “soft” orders, or pledges to buy plug-in hybrids when they become available, of more than 11,000, and the city has already set aside $1 million for incentives and rebates. He said more than 100 public power utilities and major environmental and national security groups have also joined “Plug-in Partners.”

The group will also make a presentation this week to the National Conference of Mayors meeting in Washington DC. Wynn, who is chairman of that group’s Energy Committee, said more than 300 mayors from around the country will be exposed to the program.

“The technology exists today,” Wynn says. “This campaign will demonstrate to automakers that the market is also there.”

Several industry experts spoke at the event, including Dr. Andrew Frank, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of California at Davis and Director of the UCD Hybrid Electric Research Center; Charles Fox, representing Gov. George Patak i (R-NY); Kateri Callahan, President of the Alliance to Save Energy; and Frank Gaffney, President of the Center for National Security Policy. James Woolsey, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, also spoke about the need for energy independence.

Gaffney reminded the audience that virtually every oil-producing nation—including countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Venezuela, Nigeria and Mexico—is either unstable or hostile to the U.S.

“Compounding the problem of dependency is new competitors for those supplies, including Communist China and India,” he said. “Those counties have high demands and are willing to make deals. It’s obvious that the way we’ve been doing business in no longer tenable.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) spoke briefly to the conference, calling plug-in hybrids a key element in solving problems such as pollution and dependence on foreign oil.

“I believe the next big step forward will be plug-in hybrids,” he said. “They are very marketable, and there are plenty of incentives to get them going. They could be a silver bullet for our transportation needs. To improve our nation’s energy security and air quality, we have to focus on these solutions.”

In addition to Mayor Wynn, Council Member Jennifer Kim, City Manager Toby Futrell, and Austin Energy General Manager Juan Garza were on hand for the event. Austin Energy’s Deputy General Manager Roger Duncan was the conference organizer.

Council Member Kim kicked off a meeting of plug in partners later in the day, telling the group "everything is starting to line up" to bring hybrid plug-in vehicles to the market. She said the group would need to find ways to package the message for each community. For example, in regions dealing with poverty the high cost of fuel may be the strongest factor to emphasize since a plug-in hybrid vehicle would allow the family to put more funds into housing instead of the gas tank. "Everyone has a role to play," she said. She emphasized that development of the plug-in hybrid would be a win situation—for the environment and the economy.

Kim also talked about the need for plug-in hybrids in other parts of the world, particularly large Asian cities where smog is choking people, forcing parents to put masks on their children just to take them to school.

Design panels mulls city parking authority

Study looks at whether more parking is needed, or commuters need help finding spaces

Members of the Design Commission have begun an extended discussion of the value of creating a “parking authority” to connect commuters with downtown parking.

Downtown parking has surfaced a number of times in discussions at the Planning Commission, Design Commission and at the Downtown Austin Alliance over the last decade, especially during the pressure of legislative sessions, when parking is frequently scarce around the Capitol. Both the Planning and Design commissions have been somewhat unhappy with the look and feel of both surface parking lots and parking garages downtown. All three groups were interested in the adequacy of parking.

In the case of the Design Commission, it’s how the availability of parking spaces is impacting the design of downtown buildings. A parking study commissioned by the city in 2000, and completed by Wilbur Smith Associates, noted that downtown had enough parking, but it simply was not located in the right areas of downtown. Areas of downtown, especially on Congress Avenue south of 11th Street, lacked close-in parking.

As Commission Member Holly Kincannon’s draft parking monograph points out, cities such as Philadelphia, Chicago and Boston have created municipal parking authorities to provide adequate parking by analyzing parking needs and resources, coordinating efforts of public agencies with respect to parking and becoming a single responsible authority to coordinate on-street parking. One additional hallmark of the parking authority is that it often owns and operates parking facilities or leases parking facilities to private enterprises.

“Parking really has been with more as a sporadic zoning issue rather than a functional element of downtown,” Kincannon pointed out in her discussion of the monograph on Monday night. “The proper use of parking can support mixed-use and incorporate civic art and make it a little more pleasant to be downtown.”

Kincannon said a DAA task force on the parking issue, which included parking garage owners, tried to pinpoint parking problems, specifically whether parking still was a supply-and-demand issue or possibly only a way-finding issue. The task force’s work, which included the discussion of parking authorities, was intended to talk about how to make parking function better in downtown Austin, however that might be achieved.

“There was very little concern about parking shortages. That’s not really a problem. We have so much parking provided per development,” Kincannon said. “Really the issue is distribution, that it would be helpful to have some entity that could see where parking is located and place the commuter in the place where parking is located, rather than trying to supply this endless amount of parking downtown.”

Kincannon also suggested that the abundance of parking in some parts of downtown might suggest that parking requirements be relaxed for some businesses. Perhaps the picture should be an overall picture of downtown rather than a development-by-development issue as a project moves through the site plan process. And revenue provided by a parking authority could be used to improve downtown, Kincannon said.

Members of the Design Commission, most of whom have done design work in other major cities, received the concept of a parking authority warmly. Commissioner Juan Cotera, for instance, suggested that the city’s ability to manage and place parking downtown, especially when it comes to underground parking, could bring larger-scale development, like department stores, back to the city’s inner core.

The small size of the block in Austin makes underground parking cost-prohibitive for most developers, Cotera said. A city parking authority would not be constrained by block size if the parking authority focused on providing underground parking access. An underground parking lot, funded by a city parking authority, could street for a number of lots and the space could be shared by multiple developments.

Commissioner Phil Reed said it was important for the Design Commission to tie any argument for a parking authority to a design issue. The main reason the Design Commission should support the control of a parking authority, Reed said, is that a building can dedicate 15 percent, rather than 30 percent, of its structure to parking. That’s almost always going to improve the design of a building, Reed said. Parking controls also draw density to downtown and support future mass transportation options.

Cotera’s concept of a parking authority would mean the parking authority would own and manage most of the parking in downtown Austin. Commissioner John Patterson, on the other hand, was open to the concept of a parking authority but he was not so inclined to support an authority that owned parking structures. He considered the management and operation of parking assets to be more realistic. Buying up downtown parking would be a big political obstacle to the creation of a parking authority, Patterson said.

Chris Riley, chair of the Planning Commission, has been a long-time proponent of better use of downtown parking. Asked what he thought, in general, of a parking authority, Riley said he wasn’t sure what a parking authority would accomplish that DAA could not. Still, Riley said the concept of a parking authority would be worth considering in connection with the Downtown Neighborhood Plan.

Riley said it was his sense that much of the new parking downtown has been driven by market demands rather than code requirements. Parking requirements, Riley noted, were reduced for downtown properties a couple of years ago after businesses along Sixth Street protested the lack of available parking space for converted historical buildings.

The Design Commission intends to continue its discussion of its parking monograph next month, focusing on the implications of creating a parking authority.

©2006 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has designated February 14 as the runoff election date to fill the vacancy for House District 48. The seat was left vacant after Rep. Todd Baxter resigned on Nov. 1. The runoff is necessary because no candidate won a majority of the vote in the January 17 special election. Democrat Donna Howard, who garnered 49.47 percent of the vote will face Republican Ben Bentzin, who got 37 percent. The early voting period for this run-off election will be February 6-10. The state representative elected in this special election will serve the remainder of the two-year term, including during an expected special session in April to deal with the state's public school finance problems. Lt. Gov. Dewhurst called the election date because Gov Rick Perry is out of the country. . . . Meetings . . . The Council Committee for Emerging Technology and Telecommunications meets at 3:30pm in room 1101 at City Hall . . . The Building and Standards Commission meets in the third floor training room at One Texas Center . . . Williamson extends drought declaration . . . The Williamson County Commissioners Court on Tuesday again extended the Declaration of Disaster for Williamson County for another week, continuing the prohibition on the use of combustible materials in an outdoor environment due to the potential threat of wildfires due to drought and adverse weather conditions. Commissioners issued the following statement: "Combustible materials include, but are not limited to, the use of all fireworks or any materials used in any activity that could result in a fire, such as welding. (Except as authorized by the local fire departments.) Before commencing any outdoor welding activities, persons should contact their local fire departments for permission." The Commission will look at condition again next Tuesday . . . Aquifer to study drought stage . . . The Edwards Aquifer Barton Springs Conservation District Board will consider whether to declare a Stage II Drought Alert at its meeting this Thursday. The board noted two weeks ago that though several of its well had reached a level that trigger mandatory conservation, several were still above that stage. . . McCracken gets an opponent . . . Council Member Brewster McCracken will face an opponent in the race for Place 5 on the ballot. Kedron Touvell has designated a treasurer for his campaign to run for the Place 5 seat.

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