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Council OKs contracts for Water Treatment Plant 4

Friday, August 7, 2009 by Austin Monitor

In their first major test as a group, and Lee Leffingwell’s first test as their leader, the Austin City Council voted 6-1 late last night to award the construction manager at risk contract for preconstruction services for Water Treatment Plant 4 to MWH Constructors, Inc. Council Member Laura Morrison was the lone vote against awarding the contract.


The Council also voted to give the contract for improvements to Bullick Hollow Road to Central Road and Utility Ltd. and approved a zoning change for the city-owned land where the plant is to be built.


The business community, including various minority contractor groups, strongly supported awarding of the contracts. But members of the Save Our Springs Alliance, Sierra Club, Environment Texas and Clean Water Action voiced objections, mostly based on their belief that the city could conserve enough water to avoid building the plant. The plant is estimated to cost between $500 million and more than $800 million with interest. 


Leffingwell, who has championed water conservation, believes that Austin reached its point of no return on building the plant two years ago when it purchased the site. Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez and Council Member Sheryl Cole are also strong supporters of the plant.


Council Member Randi Shade, the important fourth vote in favor, says the point of no return is really in October, when the Council will vote on a contractor to prepare the site, including tunneling for water lines. Shade voted in favor of the motions but said she would not fully make up her mind until after a Sept. 17 town hall meeting on the matter.


Council Member Bill Spelman tried to put off the vote last night for two weeks, arguing that it would give him and other Council Members more time to digest and compare data from the Austin Water Utility and environmental groups. He lost a 4-3 vote to delay considering the construction manager question, with Morrison and Council Member Chris Riley joining him.


More than 70 people signed up to speak to Council on the issue yesterday, but many did not stay for the hearing, which started after lengthy hearings on two other controversial items. Leffingwell limited time to 30 minutes per side, which also cut down on the number of speakers, angering some of the opponents.


Council Member Sheryl Cole clearly did not buy the arguments of those who said the city could save money by not moving forward with the plant right away. She said she wanted to address the question of delaying the plant “in light of the fact that we’re having some budget issues. First of all, the bidding market for heavy construction costs is currently down 25 percent and also, inflation is at the lowest rate it’s been for 20 years. It is not reasonable in my mind to assume that if we wait a year, or two years, or five years when we really think we need this plant that it will really be cheaper at that time.


Cole also addressed the questions raised by those who compared Austin’s water conservation efforts to those of San Antonio. “I think that we are a first class city. I think we can have very aggressive water conservation and at the same time have an adequate water supply. And I don’t think our citizens are asking us to do anything less. I think we can be like San Antonio in our water conservation but we will not be like San Antonio in our water supply.”


Austin voters approved funds for WTP4 in 1984, but it has been booted around as an environmental and political football ever since. The plant, first planned for the headwaters of Bull Creek, is now set to be built on the corner of RM 620 and Bullick Hollow Road. It is currently scheduled to open in 2014 as a 50 million gallon per day (MGD) facility that draws its water directly from Lake Travis. The city plans to eventually expand the plant to a treatment and pumping capacity of 300 MGD. (See In Fact Daily, July 23, 2009).

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