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Public comment key to toll road study

Thursday, January 19, 2006 by

Community input could slow down analysis, consultant warns

Public input will be a key component of the final report consultants will prepare on the feasibility of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organizations Phase 2 Toll Road Project. A steering committee made up of representatives from the entities funding the study met at Austin City Hall Wednesday to begin the process of determining the scope of the study.

Austin City Council Member Brewster McCracken has been the driving force behind the project, designed to take an objective look at a controversial package of toll roads planned for the Central Texas area that is part of CAMPO’s 2030 Transportation Plan. The study was initially a City of Austin plan, but several other stakeholders—including the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, Travis, Williamson and Hays counties and the City of Round Rock—have chipped in to pay for the $305,000 study.

CAMPO approved a plan last year to add toll lanes to parts of US 183, SH 71, US 290 East; US 290 West (the Oak Hill “Y”), and SH 45 Southwest. Loop 360, which was eliminated from the toll plan, will be included for study purposes only. The original plan drew bitter criticism from many in the community, who objected to tolling roadways already built with tax dollars.

Consultants CRA International (formerly Charles River Associates) briefed the committee on its preliminary plans for the study, including a timeline of six to nine months to complete its reports. Also working on the project will be URS Consultants, hired by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority to develop data for bonding purposes.

Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty noted that whatever the outcome of the study, it would be better accepted by various stakeholders and citizens if it had a strong component of public input.

“Whatever we come up with, I think there is a need for community involvement in the process,” he said, suggesting that a citizen’s advisory committee might improve buy-in of the final product.

CRA’s John Bonham told members he welcomed having public input on the project, including technical information from qualified individuals.

“We are always grateful to receive technical information from resources within the community to incorporate into the study,” he said. “There is a concern, however, that public involvement can swamp the process to deliver the study. I want to be able to balance public input with our technical analysis of the data.”

Another new option committee members put into the mix is the possibility of tolling commercial trucks on I-35 as an incentive to have them use SH 130 as a preferred route.

Bonham told committee members his group plans to gather financial and demographic data regarding the toll projects, and perform cost-benefit analysis studies analyzing several different models for funding the transportation system.

“We will do a thorough analysis of what options are available to tolling these roads,” Bonham said. “Our analysis will be neutral,” giving both the pros and cons for each scenario.

Bonham said CRA could, under optimal circumstances, deliver a report in about six months, but some members of the committee were skeptical, saying an October time frame for a final report to the committee was more realistic.

Committee members agreed to meet on the third Wednesday of each month during the study, varying the location. A framework for public input will be studied during the interim, and presented at next month’s meeting.

LCRA OKs first contract for Hamilton Pool water line

The Lower Colorado River Authority’s board of directors approved a number of contracts on Wednesday, including a contract for wholesale potable water service to the first subdivision to connect to the Hamilton Pool Road water line.

Suzanne Zarling, executive manager of water services for the LCRA, called the deal a “good news story” for both the subdivision and the LCRA. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality recently instructed Deer Creek Ranch Water Co., which serves a 350-home subdivision on the Travis-Hays county line, to move off of groundwater wells. The LCRA, which is constructing the Hamilton Pool Road line, is ready to start adding customers to the five-mile 16-inch pipeline, which should be finished by the end of this year.

“This will provide us customers on the ground and will help offset operational costs of that line while our other system customers are building out their development,” Zarling told the LCRA board. “This agenda item culminates a number of years of effort.”

To accommodate access to the line, the board also approved the purchase or condemnation of 22 parcels of property, primarily easement acquisition, along the Hamilton Pool Road route. The easements provide access from the existing Bee Cave pump station and storage tank down Hamilton Pool Road. Because the property acquisition is limited to minor easements, just compensation for the tracts ranges from $100 to $41,732. Some of the tracts may be purchased; others may have to be condemned by the LCRA.

Deer Creek is willing to build the connections to the water line and pay an impact fee of at least $50,000 each year, with the intention of connecting 310 homes. The LCRA currently is conducting a more accurate impact fee assessment. Monthly charges to the water company will be $2,500, with a volume charge of $2.12 per 1,000 gallons.

The contract met with board approval. General Manager Joe Beal said the race right now was to get the line completed before the wells in the area begin to fail. The situation is bad right now, but it could get much worse, Beal said. Board Member Charles Moser reaffirmed the board’s commitment to the Hamilton Pool Road line, which opponents believe will spur development in the area.

“This gets that subdivision off of reliance on well water,” Moser said. “That was one of our concerns and one of the things in the forefront for a lot of us when it came to the Hamilton Pool Road line. I think this is good news.”

Colin Clark of the Save Our Springs Alliance was in the audience at the LCRA meeting. He did not speak on the Deer Creek contract but noted some concerns with a wholesale wastewater service agreement between Travis County Water Control and Improvement District No. 17, an agreement intended to serve the Falconhead West subdivision just west of RR 620 and north of SH 71.

Clark had particular concerns about the LCRA’s Lake Pointe wastewater treatment plant, which would provide the service under the contract. Local residents, Clark said, have complained about the rotten egg smell in the wastewater treatment plant service area.

Zarling and Beal confirmed that smell had been an issue at the plant. Zarling said the LCRA had taken some measures to reduce smell on-site but considered the odor problems to be in the collection system. Beal said that it was a capacity issue, specifically a plant that had not reached its full capacity. When effluent moves through pipes that are not at full capacity – the plant is currently treating less than 525,000 gallons per day – then it has a tendency to sit and start to decay. As new customers are added to the plant, the pipes will reach capacity and the wastewater will flow more quickly, Beal said. In the meantime, the LCRA is attempting some odor control measures at lift stations.

The LCRA has filed plans with TCEQ to expand the capacity of the plant to 675,000 gallons per day, Zarling confirmed in answer to another question Clark posed. An additional site also has been requested for a second plant, with the intention that those two plants provide a combined one million gallons of wastewater treatment per day within five years. The property for the second plant is located behind the proposed Galleria site.

Lobby heavyweights duke it out on Block 21

Several heavy hitters in the small world of City Hall lobbying are actively involved in negotiating the sale of the city’s Block 21 to Stratus Properties. But lawyers from the firm of Armbrust & Brown have given up their part in the formal discussions due to the objections of Stratus CEO Beau Armstrong.

Until last week, attorney Richard Suttle was representing the Austin Children’s Museum on a pro bono basis. Another member of his firm, Gregg Krumm e, was representing Stratus’ interests. Stratus’ general counsel Ken Jones is also employed by Armbrust.

The city wants to make sure that the museum has a place in Block 21 when the space is built out. And museum officials are eager to get the space. The city plans to devote $5 million toward the museum space. But having his company’s attorneys in the same firm as the museum’s lawyer did not set well with Armstrong.

“I was uncomfortable with the conflict relationships at the law firm. I don’t think it’s a good practice,” Armstrong said. “It’s uncommon for law firms to represent both sides,” he added. “When the conflict came out, we took Armbrust & Brown out in its entirety.” Steve Drenner of Drenner & Golden and Andy Martin of Brown McCarroll are now looking out for Stratus’ interests. Former Mayor Kirk Watson, who is running unopposed for State Senator, is representing the city in the negotiations.

Suttle said originally there was no conflict because he was working for the Children’s Museum to go at the new proposed Gables project on Cesar Chavez. He said he would now be working for the museum’s interests only as a volunteer.

Armstrong said he personally had little interaction with museum supporters, adding that he does not know the probability of Children’s Museum moving to Block 21. But Armstrong said he understands the city wants to find a suitable home for the museum.

“We’re working very hard to find a scheme that works for them,” he concluded. Stratus also wants to make a space in the project for a new studio for KLRU’s Austin City Limits. Although Stratus is meeting with KLRU officials, Armstrong said, the city is not offering to participate financially in that part of the deal. (See In Fact Daily, Jan. 12, 2006.)

Armstrong said Stratus hopes to have the sale agreement done in March. After that the development would be in the design stage for nine to eleven months, he said. If that timetable holds, construction on the project could begin next January. The city awarded Stratus the contract to develop Block 21 last April. (See In Fact Daily, April 21, 2005.)

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

Going up! . . . Members of the Downtown Commission Wednesday voted to support plans by AMLI Residential Properties to build a new retail and residential complex on Block 22. That's the block northwest of City Hall over the Schneider Vaults. The 18-story high-rise apartment project will have retail on the first and second floors. The Downtown Austin Alliance and the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association have already given their endorsement to the project. Developers expect to receive their site development permit soon and hope to have the project finished by 2008 . . . Democrats kick off . . . The Travis County Democratic Party plans its 2006 Campaign Kickoff Dinner next Monday. Party officials will present a slate of candidates under the theme of Light a Fire for Democracy. The event begins at 6pm Monday, at the University of Texas Alumni Center, 2110 San Jacinto Blvd. A pre-event reception for hosts and patrons is planned from 5:30 to 6pm. For more information, contact . . . GOP women plan debate . . . Founders Vision Republican Women will sponsor a Republican Candidate Debate at 7pm tonight at Dave and Busters at 9333 Research Blvd. GOP candidates for the District 47 House Seat have been invited, including Bill Welch, Rich Phillips, Dick Reynolds, Terry Dill, and Alex Castano . . . New health clinic . . . The Travis County Hospital District/City of Austin and the Alliance for African American Health in Central Texas will host a Grand Opening of the new Far North Community Health Center, located at 928 Blackson Ave. in Austin's St. Johns neighborhood. This event will be held 10am to 1pm Saturday with a ribbon cutting ceremony beginning at 11aam. The new health center provides a wide array of medical services for Travis County residents whose low incomes and lack of private health insurance qualify them for enrollment. It has a special focus to provide outreach and healthcare to the African American community to aid in the reduction of health disparities experienced among this population group . . . Cap Metro changes . . . Capital Metro plans to open a new Park and Ride center on January 29 in North Austin's Tech Ridge area, and will offer more services along the North Austin corridor. The new center, at Howard and Parmer Lanes, will replace the Wells Branch Parkway Park and Ride. The Wells Branch center will close January 28. The Tech Ridge Park and Ride is larger than the Wells Branch center, allowing Cap Metro to add northbound and southbound express buses to the Route 935 North I-35 Express schedule. For more information, visit . . . New ABIA service . . . Mayor Will Wynn will be on hand this morning as Jet Blue inaugurates service from ABIA to two East Coast destinations, JFK Airport in New York City, and Boston's Logan Airport. The low-fare airline will fly non-stop to both destinations daily. Wynn will join Jet Blue Chairman David Neeleman for a ribbon cutting ceremony at 9:45am at Gate 19. The inaugural flight will receive a water cannon arch salute on its departure at 10:50am. Also on hand will be "Blue Betty," Jet Blue's 36-foot mobile marketing Airstream trailer. Betty is a complete "Jet Blue Experience" with aircraft seats and DIRECTV and XM Satellite radio feeds . . . Celebrating Lee's birthday. . . The Texas Association of Descendants of Confederate Veterans plans a celebration of Gen. Robert E. Lee's birthday at 11am Saturday on the East Lawn of the State Capitol grounds. Ceremonies will be near the Hood's Brigade Monument. A spokesman said the group is dedicated to honoring Confederate War veterans and to maintain historic, non-racist Southern heritage.

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