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Council hears Watershed and Transportation budget forecasts

Monday, May 9, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

With Council inching closer to solidifying next year’s budget, financial forecasts presented Thursday by the heads of the Watershed Protection, Transportation, and Public Works departments could be evidence of an economy starting to improve after years of stagnation.


The big news coming out of the Watershed Protection Department is their need for six new full-time employees in FY2012. Director Victoria Li told Council members that the six positions will help the department handle work associated with a variety of projects, from erosion mitigation to the Waller Creek Tunnel.


First, Li said, she needs a truck driver for the Field Operations Division, who will help haul some of the 250 tons of litter and debris removed from Lady Bird Lake every year. That debris is the result of “increased residential development downtown, densification of the urban watersheds, and the increased use of the lake and the surrounding trail and park system,” she said.


The department also needs a street and drainage operations superintendent for the Waller Creek Tunnel Project. “This position is critical to ensuring a seamless transition from construction to maintenance of the Waller Creek Tunnel project,” Li said.


To tackle the problem of stream erosion, Li hopes to hire an additional landscape architect. The city currently has a backlog of 112,000 feet of stream erosion, Li said, with 5000 feet of new erosion being added annually. With existing staff, the department is only able to address 4000 feet of that each year.


“At this rate it will take 23 years to address the existing backlog of erosion problems,” said Li. “An additional design expert will increase our output by about 800 feet per year.”


The watershed department also hopes to hire a new geographic information systems (GIS) technician and two new engineers, one to provide technical support in the reviewing of the Capital Improvements Program and the other to do pond safety inspections on the city’s dam inventory.


Li said customers can expect no monthly fee increase for FY2012. That will change however, in FY2013, when the department is projecting a 30-cent increase.


Public Works Department Director Howard Lazarus said his department is anticipating an increase in revenue from the city’s Transportation User Fee in FY2012—but that is due to a 1.77 percent increase in the city’s population rather than a rate increase, which the department is not recommending. That announcement came as part of a joint Public Works Department /Transportation Department financial forecast.


That forecast, Transportation Department Director Rob Spillar told the Council, is generally positive, with FY2012 requirements for the two departments falling in line with projected revenue.


Spillar hopes to add two signal technicians as part of a change to the city’s approach to traffic signals and flow. “We’re going to be reconfiguring our approach to traffic management this year,” Spillar said, “and refocusing our signal program in a different direction, toward a more systems approach.”


Spillar said the department made the determination to re-evaluate the city’s signal system after a Newsweek article declared Austin the sixth most congested city in the country and a poll taken by city staff showed that only 44 percent of Austinites are “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the traffic signal timing on major streets.


“Traffic has become more dynamic as we continue to urbanize,” Spillar said. “We’re moving to a new advanced transportation management system, a more data-centric approach, so we’re thinking of signal systems as opposed to individual signals and looking at how we better time the overall system. We’re moving to partner with TxDOT and other towns like Westlake to have a more holistic approach, to come up with a single system.


On area where the city has already seen the benefits of changing their approach is in the parking meter system. Since the city installed new electronic meters downtown, parking meter complaints have dropped to approximately 2,000, down from a high of 18,000 in 2009.


“Because of our investment in technology we’ve been able to reduce our need for enforcement by two officers in the downtown area,” Spillar said. “We now can deploy the officers outside of those metered areas and better manage the parking system in those areas.”


The new, easier-to-use meters have also resulted in fewer parking tickets. The number of tickets issued in 2009-10 was down by nearly 12,000 from the year before. “People pay for parking rather than risk getting a ticket,” Spillar said. “I look at that – and I hope the courts do as well – that we would rather collect that revenue through meters as opposed to tickets.”

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