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Council approves water, wastewater lines for planned Formula 1 track

Friday, November 19, 2010 by Elizabeth Pagano

City Council approved service extension requests Thursday for water and wastewater lines to the proposed Formula 1 racetrack site southeast of the city before a packed chamber. The Council voted 7-0 in favor of the $13.5 million contract, although the proceedings were far from one-sided.

 

Many of those arguing in favor and against the proposal were not content to address just the water line issue, but regularly strayed in the broader issue of whether the racetrack should be built at all.

 

“This is not a vote on whether Formula 1 happens, this is a vote on whether we control the water system,” Council Member Laura Morrison clarified.

 

“As I understand it, there is going to be discussion later next year about whether or not the City of Austin is interested in participating in economic incentives to the tune of what I think I’ve heard is $4 million per year for 10 years,” said Morrison, “Obviously, at that point in time, in order to consider that request there is going to be a whole lot more information that is needed in terms of economic costs and benefits and environmental issues.”

 

When asked about the incentives, attorney Richard Suttle acknowledged their potential existence, explaining that the city will have the option of participating, and that the issue was complicated.

 

Brian Rodgers of changeaustin.org was one of the few opponents of the proposal who directly addressed the issue of reimbursing developers for the cost of the water and wastewater pipes.

 

“Water doesn’t flow downhill, it flows towards money,” he said to open his remarks. He took umbrage with the city financing a project backed by two billionaires with money taken from water-rate increases for Austinites.

 

Rodgers questioned the wisdom of such generous policies of reimbursement. He contrasted them with neighboring cities, which reimburse a much smaller percentage that is often based on the difference between what the developer needs and what the city requires.

 

The Council followed Rodgers’ comments with questions for Water Utility Director Greg Meszaros on the wisdom and necessity of total reimbursement for the pipes. Council Member Bill Spelman asked about the alternative of reimbursing the difference, musing that it seemed like “good common sense.”

 

“The long-term cost for utilities is not necessarily just what is up front. What we really want to try and avoid is multiple pieces of infrastructure that serve the same region,” stated Meszaros. “We ultimately take ownership of all that and not only operate it, but need to maintain it, replace it, upgrade it in the future.”

 

Meszaros went on to explain that by only paying a portion of the cost of the pipe, the city loses the right to mandate its size. Developers would have the choice to build smaller pipes that do not take future growth into account and could lead to the creation of a system “that has a bit of a spaghetti-works effect.”

 

Spelman concluded, “To ensure that we have a smoothly running system, with properly sized pipes, we’re paying a bit more than Round Rock?”

 

“That is correct,” affirmed Meszaros.

 

While the water and wastewater issue was settled, the discussion on the overall wisdom of having a Formula 1 track in Austin continued unabated, with advocates eager to begin the races and opponents wanting to hit the brakes.

 

“I ask you to take a napkin or a handkerchief, and stop salivating for a second thinking about the tax dollars,” said Austin Sierra Club Vice Chair Roy Whaley, “Formula 1 is built on speed; the City of Austin is not.”

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