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Landowner could nudge county to finish conservation rules

Tuesday, October 24, 2006 by

County Judge Sam Biscoe says Travis County has at least one candidate developer ready to test its conservation development ordinance, which could give the Court just enough of a push to finalize initial plans on the long-awaited ordinance.

The ordinance, which has been vetted and massaged for the last six months, appeared to be headed toward life support in recent weeks, with a promise the ordinance would be brought back when it was ready. The sticking point appeared to be an incentive that would encourage developers to set aside large tracts of land for preservation.

Late yesterday afternoon, Biscoe said Transportation and Natural Resources Executive Director Joe Gieselman had informed him that at least one major area property owner was ready to enter negotiations with the county on conservation easements.

“I don’t know that we ever thought there would be numerous property owners interested in the ordinance,” Biscoe said. “I do think we hoped there would be major property owners – even developers – who owned a huge tract of land in an environmentally sensitive area who were ready to consider the ordinance, simply because they were already committed to setting aside a significant portion of their land.”

That may not be a whole lot of owners, Biscoe said. In the end, it may only be a handful. Even Commissioner Karen Sonleitner, the strongest proponent of conservation easements, has been skeptical about how many “takers” the county might have. After the pollution of Lick Creek, for instance, the developers of the West Cypress Hills subdivision were ready to consider the conservation ordinance, but the property had so many scattered environmental features that easements taking up too much property.

Today’s court action, if approved, would be to direct staff – and principally legal staff – to put the proposal into county code format, Biscoe said. At the same time, Gieselman and his staff would be instructed to start negotiations with interested landowners, to see just how far the county can move with the conservation concept.

“In the end, it’s going to come down to what’s in it for the property owner and what’s in it for the county, and we’ll see where we end up,” Biscoe said.

Just to add as much flexibility as possible, county officials are being somewhat open-ended on compensation, simply setting minimums and maximums on incentives, Biscoe said. The goal is to price incentives according to the value of the land.

Even with incentives – waiving taxes or subdivision fees – it’s still only a portion of the full tax bill for a developer, Biscoe said, since the county cannot speak for other jurisdictions.

CAMPO group hears about tolling alternatives

Alternative financing study due November 13

Just on the eve of the opening of several Phase 1 toll roads in Central Texas, the Mobility Alternative Finance Steering Committee (MAFSC) last week heard a study analyzing managed lane alternatives for the roadways in Phase 2 of the Capitol Area Metropolitan Planning Organization toll road plan. Several of the Phase 1 toll roads, including the north portion of SH 45, North Loop 1 and a stretch of SH 130, are slated to open for traffic Nov. 1, sans tolls.

The MAFSC met Wednesday morning at Austin City Hall and heard a report from consultant Charles Rivers Associates on the effect of adding tolled lanes, managed lanes and/or high occupancy lanes to roadways in Phase 2 of the CAMPO plan. Those roadways include SH 45 Southwest, SH 71 East, SH 71 West, US 290 West, US 183 South, US 290 East, and Loop 360 (for study purposes only).

The Managed Lanes study is one of two commissioned by the MAFSC. The other study, looking at feasibility issues related to Phase 2 roadways as proposed by the CAMPO Board, will be presented in a joint meeting of the CAMPO Board and MAFSC on Nov. 13. That study will analyze alternate funding mechanisms for the Phase 2 roadways.

The Charles River Associates study presented last week looked at alternative financing and traffic management models to build Phase 2 roadways. It specifically studies three alternative concepts: a mixture of non-tolled lanes and managed lanes; a mixture of non-tolled lanes and managed lanes with congestion pricing; and a mixture of non-tolled lanes and high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes.

The study generally revealed that on most of the Phase 2 roadways studied, traffic moved about 10mph faster on average and motorists arrived at sample destinations in about one-quarter to one-third less time using tolled roads or managed lanes versus non-tolled roads.

For example, the study showed that on US 183 South, the average speed for managed lanes was 39-40mph on a tolled road and 32mph on non-tolled roads during morning traffic. In the afternoon, tolled roads were 36-37mph and 32mph for non-tolled roads.

A similar example was on SH 71 West, where traffic in managed lanes averaged 45mph on tolled roads in the morning, while non-tolled lanes averaged 32mph. In the afternoon, traffic speeds averaged 44mph on tolled lanes and 32 on non-tolled lanes.

When looking at travel times, the study estimates that in 2030 travel times a trip from Manor to Austin City Hall would take approximately 33 minutes on a tolled roadway and 42 minutes on a non-tolled road.

However, travel times between the Austin Airport and City Hall showed much less difference between the tolled and non tolled option. The average time projected in 2030 on tolled roads is 19 minutes compared to 21 minutes on non-tolled roads.

The study laid out proposed toll rates for the Phase 2 projects. The toll rates used in the analysis are applied uniformly within projects and are distance-based. In current dollars, the analyzed rates are: Phase 2 Toll Plan: 12¢ / mile; Express Lanes: 12¢ / mile; Express Lanes (Congestion Pricing): 10 – 24¢ / mile for peak periods; 2¢ / mile for off-peak; and HOT Lanes: 10 – 33¢ / mile for peak periods; 4¢ / mile for off-peak.

Following the Nov. 13 meeting, the MAPSC will hold a meeting to hear public comment on the report. After public comment is incorporated, the steering committee will meet to accept the final report on Dec. 6. The final report will then be presented to CAMPO on Dec. 11.

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

Fairfield spurs more discussion . . . Even though the Fairfield Residential development on Town Lake is on tonight's Parks and Recreation Board's agenda, that didn't stop it from being a source of discussion at Monday night's Design Commission meeting. Laura Morrison of the Austin Neighborhoods Council and Wendy Price Todd of the South River City Citizens were on hand during citizens' communication to ask the commission to take another look at the Town Lake overlay, specifically the long-term profile the Design Commission might recommend for the south shoreline. Chair Ellie McKinney agreed to put the shoreline issue back on a future agenda of the Design Commission for formal consideration . . . Council retreat planned . . . The Austin City Council plans a group team-building retreat on Nov. 9 and 10. To facilitate the four half-day discussions, the city has hired University of Kansas trainers Carol Nalbandian and John Nalbandian, both of whom hold Ph.D.s. He is chair of the Department of Public Administration at KU. Carol Nalbandian has been a consultant and trainer for more than twenty-five years and is the former director of the Menninger Leadership Center in Topeka, Kan. The retreat will be held at the Crossings and is considered an open meeting. Mayor Will Wynn said he hopes the retreat will be an opportunity to confirm and refine a common vision for the future of the community. Mayor Will Wynn said in a written press release, " This retreat should help us compare our current vision against the realities of Austin today and give us the chance to make changes that better allow us to move forward to the Austin we all want." . . . Further retreats … City Manager Toby Futrell has asked that 28 of the city's 56 boards and commissions also take part in facilitated off site retreats during October and November. According to a memo from Futrell, staff from each department and from the city manager's office will meet with members of each commission to share their expectations and experiences and discuss their roles and responsibilities . . . Truth be tolled . . . Various anti-toll groups are screening the documentary, "Truth Be Tolled," around the state in coming weeks. The documentary focuses on efforts of San Antonio farmers and ranchers to oppose proposed toll roads. Locally, the documentary will be shown at the Will Hampton Branch Library, 5125 Convict Hill Rd., at 7pm next Monday. The showing will be free . . . County facilities naming questions … Commissioner Karen Sonleitner will be pushing to name the new county Sheriff's Headquarters on Airport Boulevard after the late Deputy Keith Ruiz, who died in the line of duty in 2001. Ruiz's family will be on hand at today's meeting to support her nomination of the decorated officer, and former Sheriff Margo Frasier has filed a letter of support. Ruiz's name, however, will not be the only one put into nomination for the headquarters. County Judge Sam Biscoe said almost a dozen names have been submitted. The Travis County Historical Society will assess all names before being returned to the Court for a final vote. A new precinct building in Precinct 4 also is up for naming, which County Commissioner Ron Davis would like to name in honor of Ramiro Martinez, who brought down Tower sniper Charles Whitman and went on to a distinguished career with the Texas Rangers . . . Asking for help . . . Dallas Mayor Laura Miller will be on hand at today's Commissioners Court meeting to ask Travis County to join the Coalition of Clean Cities. The coalition, headed up by North Texas leaders, is intended to oppose the fast-tracking of new coal-powered electric plants in the state. Judge Biscoe said the Clean City Coalition wants the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to consider – probably through more extensive environmental modeling – the impact of the coal-powered plants on the various clean air plans across the state. Failing that, the county could consider pursuing action against TCEQ, up to and including legal action against the state agency, Biscoe said. . . . Meetings . . . The Planning Commission meets at 6pm in Council Chambers at City Hall . . . The Parks and Recreation Board meets at 6pm in the Boards and Commissions Room at City Hall . . . The Travis County Commissioners Court meets at 9am in Commission Chambers at 314 w. 11th St. . . . The Williamson County Commissioners Court meets at 9:30am in the County Annex on Inner Loop Drive in Georgetown . . . The Hays County Commissioners Court meets at 9am at the Hays County Courthouse in San Marcos . . . Early voting underway . . . It could be an unusually large turnout this election, if the first day of early voting is any indication. Some 7,480 ballots, including mail-in ballots, were counted Monday. That is 1.37 percent of Travis County's 545,797 registered voters. Several areas showed large first day turnouts, including the University of Texas, which had 484 votes. Campus Democrats held an all-night party in order to be able to vote when the polls opened in the morning. Other locations with large first-day turnouts included the Randalls on Research, 477; Randalls on South MoPac, 403; Northcross Mall, 380, and Randall's Westlake, 359. There were 2,471 mail-in ballots . . . ANC plans bond review . . . The Austin Neighborhoods Council is planning a review of the City of Austin bond propositions at its meeting this Wednesday. On the panel to discuss the bonds will be: Dave Sullivan, member, Bond Election Advisory Committee and Chair, Planning Commission; Linda Moore, president, North Austin Civic Association and ANC Executive; Tom Terkel, member, Bond Election Advisory Committee; and Carl Tepper, Urban Transportation Commission. The meeting is set for 7pm Wednesday at the Austin Energy Building, 721 Barton Springs Road.

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