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Jo Clifton is the Politics Editor for the Austin Monitor.
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Friday, March 15, 2019 by Jo Clifton
Austin taking over underpass cleanup from TxDOT
The Texas Department of Transportation, which has been cleaning under the city’s highway overpasses for many years and cleaning up homeless camps for about three years, has notified the city of Austin that it can no longer provide those services.
TxDOT told the city it could no longer be financially responsible for the underpass cleanups due to the high cost of critical infrastructure repairs resulting from last fall’s flooding events.
The announcement was a surprise to Public Works Director Richard Mendoza when he found out about it in late December. Mendoza said a contact in the Austin Police Department told him the contract, known as a municipal maintenance agreement, would expire on Dec. 31, 2018. Mendoza told the Austin Monitor that TxDOT informed its liaison at the Police Department because they work together to facilitate cleanups and handle crowds.
“TxDOT has been doing this work for three years. Under the (previous) agreement they were conducting this work above and beyond the brush and litter control that they do,” Mendoza said. “I understand their having to respond to a lot of infrastructure work from last year, which nobody could have anticipated. That has taken precedence …. We understand that the situation has a lot of sensitivity and community awareness and we are responding as a city” to continue to safeguard public health and safety.
Mendoza explained in a memo to the mayor and Council on Wednesday that he was able to reach an agreement with TxDOT to continue the underpass cleanups for 60 days through Feb. 28, giving the city time to come up with a plan for transitioning the services.
After meeting with representatives of various departments, including Public Health, Resource Recovery, Watershed Protection, Transportation, Code, and Municipal Court in addition to Public Works, to discuss the need to continue the cleanups, Mendoza said they decided to ask the nonprofit agency WorkQuest (previously known as Texas Industries for the Blind and Handicapped, Inc.) to continue doing the work it had done under its contract with TxDOT.
Approval of the contract, which will cost $195,000 for fiscal year 2019, is on the March 28 Council agenda. Money for the contract is available in the operating budgets of Public Works, Resource Recovery and Transportation. The yearly cost for the contract will be $386,762 but may be adjusted for inflation and subsequent renewals, Mendoza noted.
According to Mendoza’s memo, prior to December, “TxDOT gave no indication of plans to suspend the contract. Within the same timeframe, City Council Districts 1 and 5, and potentially others, received requests from the community to increase the frequency of cleanups, namely at the US Highway 183 and Cameron Road and Ben White and Pack Saddle Pass locations.” Mendoza said the current plan is to continue to clean up the encampments once a month.
A spokesman for District 1 Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison said on Thursday, perhaps coincidentally, the office received a request for cleanup at the Highway 183 and Cameron Road location. Dora Anguiano, an aide to District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen, told the Austin Monitor that their office regularly receives requests to clean up the homeless encampment at Ben White and Pack Saddle Pass.
The contract is separate from the Watershed Protection Department’s plans to clean homeless encampments in and near waterways and drainage systems.
Update: The cost to rebuild the RM 2900 bridge that washed away in flooding last October is $17.3 million, not including the cost of debris cleanup. TxDOT will continue to perform our other debris and litter clean up services as needed. From Brad Wheelis, TxDOT spokesman.
Photo by Jo Clifton.
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