Photo by Ryan Thornton
Thursday, October 29, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

Domain substation may compromise Red Line Trail

Austin Energy needs a new substation to serve the population growth around the Domain and the utility already owns a site in an ideal location for that purpose. However, the Public Works Department’s Urban Trails team has been eyeing that the same property for future development of the planned 32-mile Red Line Trail.

A request to allow the substation as a permitted use is on City Council’s agenda for Thursday, but the Planning Commission has requested it be granted only as a conditional use, a move intended to leverage its influence and ensure the trail be prioritized in the Austin Energy site plan.

Commissioner Jeffrey Thompson made the motion at the commission’s special called meeting Tuesday. While acknowledging the importance of the new substation in a rapidly developing area, Thompson said the utility’s urgency makes him concerned that “in the end, if time gets tight, they will not take the best decision in terms of connectivity for bicycles to what we’re calling our ‘second downtown.’”

The site in question is located at 2412 Kramer Lane, adjacent to the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Metro Rail Red Line and a short walk south from the site of the future Broadmoor mixed-use development and Metro Rail station.

If Council were to side with the commission and grant Austin Energy’s request only as a conditional use for the existing transit oriented development zoning per the North Burnet Gateway Regulating Plan, the site plan would need to return to the commission for review once completed. If granted as a permitted use, the site plan would not return to the commission.

Tom Wald, executive director of the Red Line Parkway Initiative, told the Austin Monitor that Austin Energy did not initially agree to the city’s proposed alignment for the trail, but said that the nonprofit met again with the utility last week and “had some good breakthroughs.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, Thompson expressed concern that the utility would ultimately decide to allow the trail through the property, but reroute it around the substation rather than alongside the rail corridor as proposed by the city.

“If we make those types of decisions where we’re going 80 percent out of the way every time we have a decision for which way to go for bikes, people just aren’t going to ride bikes,” Thompson said. “Along the trail where the grade is flat and the crossings are few is the best place to put it … and by putting in this as a conditional use we sort of ensure that Austin Energy does everything in their power to make it there.”

For its part, Austin Energy has committed to allow the trail through the site, but has not agreed to a specific alignment. Susan Groce with the utility told the commission Tuesday that it could be possible to route the trail along the rail tracks, but added, “We can’t agree to that right now and commit to that with an easement because (Watershed Protection) is not at the table, we don’t have the design plans yet from the railroad as to where their easement requests will be for double-tracking the property. So we frankly couldn’t do field notes yet.”

Due to the property’s proximity to existing and future developments, Austin Energy does not expect to require infrastructure like new transmission towers and overhead transmission lines. On the other hand, Wald said the site’s location also makes it a good candidate for higher uses like housing.

The commission voted to recommend the approval by conditional use in a 9-1-1 vote, with Chair Todd Shaw against and Commissioner Patricia Seeger abstaining.

“If we delay Austin Energy and its ability to provide the load or meet the demand of this area, that is not a good thing,” Shaw said before the vote.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Austin Energy: As a municipally-owned electric utility, Austin Energy is a rarity in the largely deregulated State of Texas. It's annual budget clocks in at over $1 billion. The utility's annual direct transfer of a Council-determined percentage of its revenues offers the city a notable revenue stream.

City of Austin Planning Commission: This commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. These include the abilities "[t]o make and amend a master plan, recommend approval or disapproval of proposed zoning changes and control land subdivision within neighborhood planning areas and submit, annually, a list of recommended capital improvements." It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.

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