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Reporter’s Notebook: The Return

Monday, April 6, 2015 by Austin Monitor

What a country! … Before hearing a set of briefings from Transportation Department staff at a March 25 meeting of the City Council Mobility Committee, Council members had a high-level discussion about the merits of regulating Austin’s taxicab industry. Council Member Don Zimmerman turned heads when he compared Austin’s taxicab regulations with his experiences in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1996 and 1997, about a half-decade after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. “I could walk out to a curb on any street … and you could hold out your hand in a certain way and a car would pull over in a matter of seconds. You would talk to the driver of this car that you’d never met in your life, they would negotiate some taxi rate and you would go to where you would need to go,” he said. “How is it that I can go to a former Soviet country and live and work and exist and get taxi rides with no background checks, with no licensing, in a completely unregulated, a completely free and open market without any issues?” he asked. Calling the local system “overregulated,” Zimmerman said he presented the story as “an anecdotal example of how other places in the world that we think are behind us in many ways, they’re actually ahead of us in taking care of the market for taxi rides.” Council Member Ann Kitchen, who chairs the committee, said Zimmerman brought up an “essential policy question” that Council would discuss, including specifics such as “the level and degree of regulation as well as the fairness, the efficacy (and) how they’re applied” across different ground transportation models, including transportation network companies like Lyft and Uber. Transportation Director Robert Spillar said the “primary interest” of regulation is “making sure there is a base level of service as well as a basic understanding of a safe service that’s being offered.”

Bus ordinance becomes a big deal … City Council passed a resolution to make unlawfully passing a school bus a civil offense at its regular meeting Thursday. Council grappled with cost to taxpayers (none) and whether the public had a chance to discuss the change before Council made the rule into law (resolutions do not change the law). Making the violations a civil offense allows the school district to install cameras in buses with stop signs at no cost to the district. Companies install the cameras and then get their revenue from the fines resulting from catching passing drivers. The Austin Independent School District launched a pilot program with 30 buses last year; about 60 drivers a day ignored the stop sign, according to data from the AISD pilot program’s camera vendors. Mark Littlefield, a representative from Force Multiplier Solutions — which installed bus cameras for the Dallas Independent School District — said several studies by the Department of Public Safety and other pilot programs showed about one violation per day across the state. Council Member Don Zimmerman replied that different studies can prove opposite points on the same topic. Unlawfully passing school buses is already a criminal offense, but Austin Police Department Assistant Chief Brian Manley said it is difficult to enforce those violations. The ordinance will go to a public hearing at the Council’s Public Safety Committee and then return to Council before its July break.

Sky bridge versus Robot … Sky bridges have long been a source of consternation for urbanists (and others concerned about taking pedestrian activity away from the street). At the March 26 meeting of City Council, Schlosser Development’s Rick Duggan offered a solid reason for his proposed sky bridge across Bowie Street between West Fifth and Sixth streets, to a property the company also owns. The bridge, he explained, would offer safe passage in the event of a flood. “We understand elevated walkways may conflict with ideal urban design. … However, in this case, where the use is strictly for emergency access, it will not detract from normal pedestrian traffic between the buildings,” said Duggan. “We have explored alternatives with the building officials and with fire department personnel, and we have concluded that this $400,000 bridge is the only answer that satisfies the code requirement. Additionally, we have already paid a $23,000 appraised value for the air rights.” In answering questions, Duggan explained just how thorough the exploration of those alternatives was. They included a catwalk drawbridge, driving a firetruck into the water, and even “an amphibious firefighting duck.” That option, said Duggan, was a “$400,000 piece of equipment available only in South Korea.” While that option might work “conceptually,” he said that the lack of experience operating the duck rendered it impractical as determined by staff. Duggan told Council that he had been working on this project, Shoal Creek Walk, for about 15 years. He ran through the history of the project, which included several (expired) approvals for the pedestrian bridge, and one current approval. He said the bridge had been included in the entitlements for the project for more than eight years. However, due to a recent change in city policy, Duggan had to return to City Hall once again in order to establish a now-required encroachment agreement from Council. Council approved the encroachment unanimously; Council Member Ann Kitchen was absent for the vote.

OMG … As proof that at least some of the change promised by a new 10-1 system has been adopted, the Austin Monitor offers up this quote, heard at the March 26 meeting of the City Council Audit and Finance Committee: “I’m Elaine Hart. I’m the chief financial officer of the city, and I no longer use the acronym CFO, so that people know who I am.”

Reporter’s Notebook items came from the files of Tyler Whitson, Sunny Sone and Elizabeth Pagano this week.


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