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City awaits toilets for downtown public restroom project

Friday, September 20, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

Austin’s first permanent public restroom project downtown has been pushed back several months due to problems in the manufacturing process.

Portland Loo, the company that makes the solar-powered restrooms, told staff earlier this month it has run into “parts and labor issues,” disrupting the expectations of the city and a number of other customers.

Council Member Kathie Tovo, who sponsored the initial resolution to explore installation of free, 24-hour public toilets in January 2016, said she is disappointed by the news.

“We’ve had a multi-year wait for public restrooms; I’m very glad that we’re moving forward with getting the Portland Loo – that seems to be the model that promises the best fit for an urban environment – but I’m extremely disappointed that we’re experiencing further delays,” Tovo told the Austin Monitor. “We need these restrooms and we needed them years ago.”

Having learned of the news Thursday afternoon, Tovo said she plans to talk with staff on Friday to discuss any possible ways to get the restrooms before January.

Having initially scheduled three facilities for delivery and installation beginning this fall, Portland Loo now promises to deliver the first two in January 2020, followed by the third in mid-2020.

The city ordered the three facilities last year after a pilot program featuring rotation of a temporary public restroom facility across five downtown locations. After analyzing the best locations and comparing different restroom types, the city chose to move forward with Portland Loo in three downtown spots: Trinity Street near Brush Square; Brazos Street between Fifth and Sixth streets; and near the intersection of Seventh Street and the southbound Interstate 35 frontage road.

Because much of the utility work has already been designed in preparation for the facilities, the Public Works Department says the Portland Loo model is still the fastest and most economical route forward, despite the delay. According to staff, choosing a different manufacturer at this point could mean scrapping the utility prep and design that has already been accomplished.

Rather than looking into other options, the city will continue preparing the water and wastewater work at the first two sites in October to get them ready for immediate installation once the units are delivered.

Once installed, the facilities will be available to the public free of charge around the clock. According to a June 2016 memo by City Council, the existence of safe, clean restrooms will provide a safer, healthier downtown environment.

Each Portland Loo unit costs between $90,000 and $140,000 to purchase and install and approximately $25,000 per year for two daily cleanings, seven days a week. The Austin Transportation Department will be responsible for funding and ownership of the facilities, while cleaning and maintenance will be administered by the Downtown Austin Alliance.

To offset those costs, staff recommends allocation of parking revenues for each individual facility. For the location at Seventh Street and I-35, the city is negotiating use of revenues from city-operated parking lots on rights of way owned by the Texas Department of Transportation in conjunction with revenues from city-owned parking meters. For the Trinity Street facility, staff recommends the use of parking revenue available in the downtown Great Streets program.

The Seventh Street facility, the only one that may contain multiple restroom stalls, will be near the most popular location of the pilot program. While the least popular location, at Fourth and Colorado streets, saw less than 25 daily entries on average, the facility at Sixth Street and I-35 saw an average of 128 daily entries during March 2018.

While it was also relatively popular, the city chose not to move forward with a permanent facility at Sixth and Red River streets, as it experienced significant abuse by the public during the pilot from mid-December 2017 through January 2018. The facility was out of commission nearly 8 percent of that time period due to a number of hazardous events, including multiple fires, that took place inside the unit.

The downtown public restroom project entails a partnership between Public Works, Austin Transportation, Economic Development and the Downtown Austin Alliance. Together, with the convention center, the city is collaborating on a memorandum of understanding to outline the shared management of the units.

Photo of Portland Loo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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