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Martinez urges continued search for WTP4 site

Tuesday, November 14, 2006 by

Council Member Mike Martinez, says he believes it is necessary for the city to continue to seek an alternative site for Water Treatment Plant 4 despite reports that no preferable site exists. "I haven't given up finding an alternative site to Bull Creek," he said, "because the environmental community believes there are critical environmental features that we simply cannot avoid."

Martinez has also raised a number of questions about other tracts, spurring yet another round of memos on possible sites in Northwest Travis County. The latest memo, from Austin Energy General Manager Juan Garza, rejects arguments from Pat McCluskey, who represents the owner of the Lucas tract. That is one of a number of tracts the Austin Water Utility rejected as a plant site. McCluskey presented the tract, and a possible design for a site, in a letter to Council members last week.

The city has begun preparatory work on engineering for the Bull Creek site, the home of the endangered Golden-Cheeked Warbler, as well as the Jollyville Salamander. Environmentalists have opposed the site for the plant and the city has hired two law firms to help defend it against possible legal attempts to stop construction.

The salamander is proposed for federal listing but the federal Fish and Wildlife Service has not acted on the petition. Martinez still sees trouble from environmental activists. "They could get an injunction saying they are trying to prove the Jollyville Salamander is in endangered species. ‘We need you to prohibit construction until we have a fair hearing.’ And that would put us in a delay mode that would put us past our critical date of the start of this project. So, at that point, if an injunction is granted and we could see a two year delay we’re going to have to start looking for alternative sites," he said.

Garza’s memo indicates that there will be yet another memo next week concerning karst features and critical environmental features on the upper, or northern, Cortaña site. An additional memo, promised in two weeks time, is expected to provide an evaluation of how those environmental features would affect the layout of the plant on that tract. Travis County has already rejected the northern Cortaña option. (See Infactdaily October 5 2006 ).

The City of Austin offered to trade the Bull Creek site, along with acreage on Little Barton Creek, for about 50 acres of Cortaña if the county would agree to allow removal of those acres from the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve. County approval for such a switch is needed because the two entities are partners in creating and running the preserve.

Garza’s memo also seeks to "bring closure to the recent audit investigation," related to the southern, or lower, portion of Cortaña, which had also been suggested as a site for the plant. Both the earlier reports and this one reject that tract as having insufficient suitable acreage, unsuitable topography and lack of access.

As for the Lucas tract, Carollo Engineers, which is doing the design of the plant, has determined that the tract is of the wrong shape and has other problems, according to Garza’s memo. However, the memo indicates that city staff and consultants "are in the process of further reviewing and evaluating the Lucas tract proposal from McCluskey) and plan to provide the additional information and evaluation results within the next two weeks."

Garza was thrust into the WTP 4 controversy last summer when Deputy City Manager Joe Canales retired, leaving a critical vacancy in the midst of continuing controversy about the siting of the plant.

Study: Managed lanes could supplant toll roads

Consultant shows revenue gap between Phase 2 tollways and alternatives

Toll road numbers from Charles Rivers Associates last night gave Council Member Brewster McCracken just enough room to suggest that managed lanes could be an alternative to fully tolling the second phase of the Central Texas toll road plan.

It wasn’t a wide gap – in fact CRA’s John Bottoms suggested further study of managed lanes before any vote. But Bottoms did suggest that toll alternatives – such as managed lanes and HOT lanes, which charge the highest rates for single-occupant vehicles during peak travel times– could provide an alternative to tolled lanes. After almost two hours of discussion, McCracken boiled it down to the basic point: Managed lanes, built on the same timeline as tolled lanes, could provide almost the same time savings benefits but with limited long-term revenue returns.

In the final benefit-cost ratio – the costs subtracted from the perceived benefits of congestion reduction, vehicle operation savings and accident cost savings – the fully tolled alternative was showed the greatest cost-benefits ratio. The longer the roads without tolls – or roads with a single managed lane, for instance – were delayed because of limited funding, the greater the gap between tolled and non-tolled.

McCracken noted that a number of roads on the toll road plan – including portions of SH 71 East and US 183 South – were already under construction. That could leave managed lanes a viable option as part of a larger tolled-non-tolled transportation scenario, as long as the reduced revenue was understood, McCracken suggested.

Roads that will require bonding include SH 45 Southwest, SH 71 West, US 290 West, US 290 East and Loop 360. Loop 360 was pulled out of the plan because it would require a concession contract to complete. CRA estimated the cost of the Loop 360 improvements at $744 million. Mike Heiligenstein, executive director of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, admitted that such a project would be impossible to bond and would only be feasible under a concession arrangement in which a private company agreed to assume the road’s risks and profits.

Bottoms noted that the gap between funding and cost on the toll road plan – about $155 million – was still feasible. If the Loop 360 project were included as a tolled project, that gap would be far closer to $1 billion and much harder to bridge. The gap between revenue and cost on the various managed lane scenarios ranged from $627 million to $642 million, all requiring various outside sources of revenue.

Over the next two months, CAMPO will have four public hearings. The first meetings will be Wednesday, Dec. 13, at Covington Middle School, and Thursday, Dec. 14, at Round Rock Main Library. Additional meetings are scheduled in January at LBJ High School on Jan. 10 and Kyle City Hall on Jan. 11, with a final vote on Feb. 12.

Among some of the findings presented by Charles Rivers Associates:

Austin led the state in initial toll road miles – with 150 miles proposed in 2005 — but other metropolitan areas have caught up with Austin. Subsequently, the Dallas/Fort Worth area has proposed 529 miles and Houston has proposed 444 miles. San Antonio, the area most comparable to Austin in size, has proposed 247 tolled miles.

Close to half of the new miles proposed by Austin are tolled, compared to roughly 35 percent for Houston and 13 percent for Dallas. CAMPO Executive Director Michael Aulick noted that 34 percent of those miles can be attributed to SH 130 and 14 percent of those miles can be attributed to the second phase of the toll roads.

The various options proposed – from managed lanes to express lanes congestion pricing to high-occupancy toll lanes – showed about the same benefits in terms of vehicle miles traveled. Tolled lanes were 3 to 12 miles faster per hour. No managed lane concept appeared better than others based on traffic impacts.

CRA’s numbers noted that the express lanes would raise only a fraction of the revenue that fully tolled lanes would raise. That might be expected, but Bottoms added that the limited revenue from managed lanes would only provide a fraction of the bonding capacity of the tolled lanes, maybe only 10 to 15 percent of full toll revenue.

Once the 30-year bonds on the various roadways were paid off, the full toll road system could generate $51.2 million a year with Loop 360 and $46.5 million per year without Loop 360. The next best alternative for revenue was congestion-priced express lanes, with a range in revenue between $8.1 million to $12.2 million, depending on whether Loop 360 was either included or excluded from the mix.

Members of the CAMPO board were still digesting the figures at last night’s meeting. Chair Gonzalo Barrientos talked about alternate funding sources. Council Member Betty Dunkerley spoke of the long-term revenue impact on the CAMPO 2030 plan. Council Member Jennifer Kim asked for the toll plan’s impact on Interstate 35 and MoPac, as well as the impact of rail on the overall transportation system. Many of those questions likely will be answered during ongoing discussions.

Regional rail service to cost $612 million

The Austin-San Antonio Intermunicipal Commuter Rail District is presenting its cost-benefit analysis of a starter rail line to various jurisdictions along its route this month, including the cities of Round Rock, Buda, Georgetown and Kyle.

Consultant Lonnie Blaydes, hired by Carter & Burgess to provide a second opinion on the cost of the rail line, said the $612 million cost estimate on the 112-mile line between Georgetown and San Antonio is still accurate, even in 2006 dollars. That’s the good news for the rail district. The bad news is that the district’s scheduled service plan – intending to offer local and express service at the same time in both directions – may be too ambitious to be feasible, Blaydes told the rail district board at this month’s meeting.

“In your operating plan, you have a really complicated system to estimate,” Blaydes said. “Most big cities have equal service at either end, usually commuter service.”

Blaydes currently is a consultant, but he played a key role in the implementation of the Dallas Area Rapid Transit system, including the Dallas-Fort Worth route known as the Trinity Railway Express. He also was a consultant on the recent commuter rail project in New Mexico, which also was presented at this month’s rail district meeting.

The Austin-San Antonio commuter rail district’s plan is to have four different types of trains – north-bound local and express; and south-bound local and express – on basically a single-track railroad that would require significant infrastructure improvements. Adding Amtrak intercity service to the operating mix further complicates operations, Blaydes said. To operate reliably, such a service plan could require double – or even triple – tracking at some stations along the route, Blaydes wrote in his report.

Blaydes also considered the transit schedule aggressive. Commuter rail line speeds, on average, are 30 to 35 mph, despite the fact that top speed of rail cars is around 70 mph. The disparity is due to a number of factors: acceleration and de-acceleration rates; track geometry in urban areas; the number of stations served; longer station stops due to access issues under the Americans with Disabilities Act; and municipal speed restrictions frequently required along the route.

Express service chews up track capacity, Blaydes told the rail district board. The plan also assumes there will be no rail freight conflicts with the initial and full service plan operations. Under the rail district’s plan, all overhead Union Pacific freight traffic would be moved off the corridor and the remaining local freight would provide no issues to interfere with the commuter rail schedule.

It took almost 10 years to ramp up the commuter rail service along the Trinity Railway Express route, rolling out the stops between the two cities, Blaydes said.

Blaydes also reviewed Carter & Burgess’ cost estimates. The cost of the station platforms – at $1 million apiece – appeared rather high to Blaydes. It would probably be closer to $650,000 apiece. An estimated $100 million for grade separations also appeared to be excessive. The budget for track vehicles also was reasonable, although Blaydes recommended locomotives over diesel motor vehicles.

According to Blaydes’ estimates, the cost of track work under the commuter rail district’s plan was reasonable. Tracks already carrying the heavier freight rail cars would be likely to have no problem conveying commuter rail, in most cases. Blaydes noted bridge and structure repairs were still difficult to estimate without further study and would depend on the condition of the individual bridge structures. The cost of signals, at $35 million, was unlikely to be sufficient, Blaydes said.

The estimated $14.4 million for a maintenance yard also was likely to be too low. A more reasonable estimate probably is in the $18 and $20 million range, assuming the rail district could find a location that did not require significant site work.

Blaydes still came up with a $612 million total. That total will be presented to the Kyle City Council tonight. Round Rock and Buda city councils heard the presentation last week.

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

Mayor at Sundance Summit. . . Austin Mayor Will Wynn is in Utah to present a report on the U. S. Conference of Mayors' Council on Climate Protection at the 2006 Sundance Summit. "In Austin, we have been a national leader on emission and energy issues," said Wynn. "This conference is an opportunity to share information, ideas, and resources to help take immediate action to address climate protection." Some 35 Mayors from cities around the country including San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, Miami, Des Moines, and Albuquerque, will be in attendance at the three-day conference as well as former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, former Colorado Senator Gary Hart, actor Robert Redford and representatives of major corporations and national environmental groups. . . . Council Salaries on the agenda. . . A late addition to this week's City Council agenda includes an ordinance setting Council salaries and compensation. The item was placed on the agenda by Mayor Wynn, Mayor Pro Tem Dunkerley and Council Member Brewster McCracken. An earlier move to have the City's Ethics Commission recommend changes in the Council salaries went nowhere, leading to this week's item. . . . UTC seeks to preserve unused stretch of rail. . . The Urban Transportation Commission is asking the City Council to study preserving some unused rail right-of-way in the Seaholm area that is currently targeted for re-development. UTC Chair Andrew Clements says the unused section of right-of-way formerly curved away from the main Union Pacific line, but has not been in use for several years. Clements says it could be re-established to help connect to a future street-car system. The unused right-of-way mirrors an existing short stretch of track that is still active. . . . Austinites get a break on flood insurance. . . . Austin residents who are most at risk for flooding may get a break on the cost of their flood insurance. Due to the City of Austin's efforts to manage its floodplains and to raise awareness about flooding, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is offering Austin residents who live in a floodplain up to a 15 percent discount on flood insurance. Formerly, FEMA offered a maximum 10 percent discount in the Austin area. The higher discount went into effect on Oct. 1. . . . . Schools producing solar energy . . . A ribbon-cutting ceremony will be held at 9:30am at O. Henry Middle School to recognize the installation of solar arrays by Austin Energy at 11 schools – nine in Austin and two in Round Rock. The installations are part of the Texas Solar for Schools Program sponsored by the Texas State Energy Conservation Office. The solar arrays produce 3.4 kilowatts of capacity each. Schools in Austin with the arrays installed include Garza High School, Bedicek, Kealing, Martin, Murchison and O. Henry middle schools; and Blanton, Bryker Woods, Cunningham, Maplewood, Davis and Zilker elementary schools. In Round Rock it's Westwood High School and Pond Springs Elementary. . . . Watson to speak to hospice group . . . Senator-elect Kirk Watson will deliver the keynote address at the 3rd Annual Day of Community Reflection hosted by the Friends of Girling Hospice and other Central Texas hospice organizations. Featured speakers will address issues concerning end-of-life care. The event will take place on Nov. 28 at the University of Texas J. J. Pickle Research Campus in the Commons Building. The program is open to the general public. Registration and breakfast will begin at 8am. The program begins at 8:45am and ends at 4pm. Registration is $65. Fee includes workshop materials and refreshment breaks. Breakfast and lunch are provided. A limited number of scholarships are available. For more information, please call Jason Earle at 452-5781 ext. 212 or email . . Legislative issues . . . The AusTech Alliance, part of the Greater Austin Chamber, will host a technology luncheon today to discuss upcoming legislative issues that will affect the local technology industry in 2007. Topics include business taxes, the Texas Enterprise Fund, emerging technologies, creative media incentives and electric reliability. Additionally, there will be a discussion of the role and impact of the November elections on Texas politics and the upcoming state legislative session. The luncheon is set for 11:30am to 1pm at the Arboretum Renaissance Hotel, 9721 Arboretum Blvd. . . . A new Democrat is on the way. . . Last night, Rep. Mark Strama wanted to know just what a CAMPO work session on toll roads on Feb. 5 would entail, and it wasn't just idle chit chat. Strama's first child, a daughter, is due Feb. 4, and it's likely Strama will be otherwise occupied if she makes a timely arrival. Strama is married to FOX News reporter Crystal Cotti..

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