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City worries about impact of LCRA line on caves

Friday, June 2, 2006 by

A subcommittee of the Environmental Board and city Watershed Protection and Development Review staff are currently negotiating with the Texas Department of Transportation and the Lower Colorado River Authority over the alignment of power transmission lines that run parallel to the planned route for the southwest leg of SH 45.

Easement rights for the LCRA Friendship to Manchaca were transferred to the Pedernales Electric Cooperative, and were intended to run along the old Austin Energy easement. The AE easement is between 80 and 150 feet wide adjacent to the north side of the SH 45 easement. City officials are concerned that the clearing and construction of the transmission line will disturb adjacent water quality protection lands.

The southwest portion of SH 45 is planned to run between FM 1626 and I-35 as part of a loop that would circle the city from SH 130 near Round Rock, reconnecting with SH 130 near Creedmoor. The planned route of SH 45 SW runs near Flint Ridge Cave, which is considered a critical environmental karst feature. The Environmental Board is working with LCRA and TxDOT to mitigate the roadway’s impact on the area.

Ed Peacock, supervising engineer with the city’s Watershed Protection and Development Review, said the city is focused on the part of the route near Flint Ridge Cave.

"We’re trying to find the route along with LCRA that has the least potential impact to all the karst features," he said. "It’s like threading a needle because of the many karst features. We went through seven routes and it’s down to two, but now we need a study of the subsurface."

Environmental Board Member John Dupnik said the city would prefer that the transmission line be built within the SH 45 easement, but TxDOT says that is not possible in the scenic easement of a parkway right-of-way. SH 45 is considered a parkway.

"Originally, we wanted the subcommittee to be able to be able to tell the board that one route was preferable," he said. "But of the two, there’s not an obvious one that’s the best."

He said the subcommittee’s report would not likely contain a preference for which route the transmission lines should take, but will recommend that the city and the LCRA continue pursue a compromise. The Board is hoping to find a way to minimize the impact of the utility right-of-way through what is an environmentally sensitive area.

"We are also working with TxDOT on whether the two right-of-ways can overlap at all, because state rules appear to prohibit that, as well," he said.

The LCRA issued a statement saying it has been working closely with the City of Austin and Environmental Board to help address concerns that are being raised about the route.

"Currently, LCRA Transmission Services Corporation is conducting several environmental studies, including a survey of caves and sink holes leading to the aquifer, archaeological surveys, and development of a water quality protection plan. LCRA TSC also is conducting a natural resource review to identify any potential endangered species habitat."

Peacock said the city remains concerned about the impact of the transmission lines in the area.

"It’s going to take a while. We want to do resistivity measurements and determine where the voids are so they don’t plunk down a pole in the middle of a cave we don’t know about," he said. "At the same time, we've been talking about what water quality controls are going to be put on the stretch of highway."

Another Environmental Board subcommittee is studying an ordinance proposed by Council Member Lee Leffingwell, which contains many of elements of the recently defeated charter amendment put forth by the SOS Alliance.

Environmental Board Chair Dave Anderson has divided the subcommittee into study groups to examine several elements of the proposed ordinance.

"At the original subcommittee meeting, we realized that even though it is a short ordinance, there is a lot of interest in it," said Dupnik.

One group will study incentives for companies to develop in the city’s "Preferred Development Zones" instead of over the aquifer, another will examine the "grandfathering" issues, and a third will examine a section calling for cost-benefit analysis of any major expenditure of funds for development in the Barton Springs zone.

Both subcommittees will update the entire Environmental Board at its next meeting on June 7.

Overpasses raise hackles of US 290 E neighbors

Overpasses are the current sticking point in the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority’s efforts to offer up a context-sensitive design on the proposed US 290 East toll road project between State Highway 183 and State Highway 130.

This is a stretch of roadway proposed for expansion that passes through a number of established neighborhoods in Northeast Austin such as Walnut Place, Harris Branch and Chimney Hill. It also is an area known to the county for its conflict over landfills – and landfill truck traffic – so it’s no surprise that Trek English and members of her NorthEast Action Group were on hand at a Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority open house in Manor last night to discuss design issues of the US 290 East project.

The first conceptual picture of US 290 East, intended to capitalize on existing and future crossovers in the area, include Tuscany Way, Arterial A and Giles/Johnny Morris. English says these overpasses were proposed to the neighborhood in 2004, and the CTRMA has done little to make amendments to the plan since then.

"We’ve never had any option to do anything about it," English said. "It’s like they’ve already made up their minds. They’ve taken a lot of input, but they really don’t address people’s concerns. Things have not changed at all in the plan."

HNTB is the general engineering consultant on the US 290 East toll project. Mark Mathews, who is leading the context-sensitive design discussion, says he and five designers working under him on the project continue to amass input on the project. By the first week of July, Mathews expects to have a better of idea of which changes might be made to the project, as well as a direction on design issues such as landscaping and bike paths along the length of the toll road. Those guidelines will be passed along to the contractor who signs the comprehensive development agreement on the project.

The conceptual design on 290 East has made some choices on overpasses along the route that have yet to have the unified support of the community. First, the plan puts an overpass at Tuscany Way and stubs out Springdale Road. It also places an overpass at the proposed Arterial A, the controversial road project which was deleted from the recent county bond election. Those choices are likely to generate heated discussion on both sides of the issue in the community.

In Northeast Austin, Springdale Road has been the long-favored alternative route for drivers who wanted some way to get off of US 290 and onto other major arterial roads in the area such as Highway 183 and I-35. Unfortunately, Springdale Road also became the favored route for heavy truck traffic, which has aggravated neighborhoods along the street. Traffic was so bad that county commissioners, who rarely approve traffic-calming devices, made a rare exception for Springdale Road, at the insistence of Commissioner Ron Davis.

Choosing Tuscany Way as an alternative route is tricky. The road is intended as a bypass – it is supposed to connect to Springdale on the south of US 290 and Ferguson on the north– but construction of the road has yet to be funded. Only two weeks ago, county commissioners approved using $250,000 in excess bond revenue to fund a preliminary design study of the project. To work effectively as a toll road overpass, someone will have to ante up the construction funds for the project – and ante it up before construction of US 290 is completed — and who that someone would be is not apparent.

The second overpass choice is Arterial A. This, too, is a project that was proposed for the last bond package but was pulled due to a simmering controversy that pitted neighbor against neighbor in the local neighborhoods. Some considered the construction of Arterial A to be an essential relief valve for Springdale Road. Others considered it to be a tacit approval, even an encouragement, of the expansion of a local landfill projects in the area. The project was pulled from the bond issue, so while it may be an ideal overpass in the toll road planners’ minds, it, too, has yet to be funded.

Mathews says the goal of the context-sensitive design process is not a unanimous decision. Instead, it’s the idea that the community remains engaged, is active in the discussion and ultimately understands the decision that is reached by the CTRMA.

"We would love to build consensus," Mathews said. "That would be the best of all worlds, but we recognize and realize that, at times, that is very difficult to do. When those times manifest themselves, our job is to get out there and work with the situation. We hope, eventually, to find project champions in the community who can take the project out to the community and champion why we’ve made the choices we’ve made."

A meeting on the Springdale issue has been scheduled next Tuesday. Once the design issues of the first phase of the toll road – that length from Highway 183 to Highway 130 – are worked out, Mathews will move on with design options for a proposed extension of the toll road into, and through, Manor. The CTRMA would like to extend the US 290 East toll project, if possible, all the way out to FM 973.

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

A tussle ahead ?. . . When new members join the City Council they generally have expectations, or at least hopes, about which of the many committees and other panels they will sit on. Some of the more sought after positions are on Capital Metro but those with seniority on the Council may insist that they have waited and should be given a chance for that board. Both Sheryl Cole and Mike Martinez have expressed an interest in sitting on the Cap Metro board. If they get those positions, they will preserve the current ethnic balance, since Danny Thomas and Raul Alvarez are stepping down. Like many of the matters that goes on between members of the Council, this struggle will take place behind the scenes but should be coming shortly after the June 20 swearing in of the new members . . . Libertarian complains about AMD . . . Advanced Micro Devices spent more than $11,000 to oppose Propositions 1 and 2 on the May 13 ballot, filing a report of its contributions and expenditures with the city on May 5. However, AMD’s report seems to be a little short on details, with one item of $10,118.95 designated as "allocation of employee and consultant compensation paid for assisting in informational breakfast and working on internal, campaign-related communications." Now, Libertarian Arthur DiBianca has filed a complaint with the Texas Ethics Commission alleging that the lack of detail violates state law. In May, DiBianca filed a lengthier and more detailed complaint against the Clean Water Clean Government PAC, which supported the two amendments. Part of that complaint also related to a lack of detail in how campaign money was spent. The commission has accepted both complaints, saying they are technically sufficient to warrant looking into. Travis Bullard of AMD said Thursday that the company "took special care in reporting all the expenditures and made every effort in providing what was required," adding that AMD "will provide anything else they request." Bullard said AMD’s consultants include Tate Austin, Waggener Edstrom Worldwide, Martin & Salinas, and Glover Park of Washington, DC. Those consultants work on a wide variety of issues, including marketing the company’s products, he said . . . Austin in bright lights again . . . The pilot for the TV series based on the book and movie "Friday Night Lights" is complete with a little help from Austin. Rusty Kelley, who represents NBC, said the network plans to do 12 episodes and "after that if it goes well they could be here five, six, seven years," he said. Kelley praised the city for making it easy to film here. Not that anything extraordinary was required . . . CAMPO Open House . . . The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) is hosting three Open Houses to allow the public an opportunity to review and comment on the draft Texas Metropolitan Mobility Plan. The TMMP is a long-range, needs-based plan to reduce congestion, improve mobility, and address transportation-related quality-of-life factors. Meetings are scheduled: 6-8pm Monday at Round Rock Public Library, 216 E. Main St. in Round Rock; 6-8 pm Wednesday in Suite 325 at One Texas Center, 505 Barton Springs Road; and 6-8pm Thursday at San Marcos Public Library, 625 E. Hopkins St. in San Marcos. The draft TMMP and information on CAMPO’s programs is available at www.campotexas.org or at the CAMPO office at 505 Barton Springs Road in Austin. Comments may be submitted to CAMPO by mail, fax or e-mail until June 16, 2006.

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