Covid-19 delays county bond projects
Like so many other things these days, the projects funded by Travis County’s 2017-2022 bond program have experienced delays. The $301 million bond package was divvied out between 59 different projects that were slated for completion by the end of 2022. Now only 49 of those projects will be completed on schedule. According to Jessy Milner, the program manager for the bond package, the other projects are delayed for varying lengths of time. “The master schedule has adjusted to a total of a 10-day additional increase in average overall project duration,” he told the Commissioners Court. Some of the projects are delayed by six months or more. “Due to Covid, there are just new working environments,” he said, referring to new social distancing mandates on construction sites, project managers working at home and difficulties in temporarily shutting off utilities to move them to a new location. Hurricane Laura making landfall last week did not help the situation. Milner said that many construction crews paused work in Travis County to help with emergency response projects in the state. Morgan Cotton, director of the county’s Public Works Department, said, “Even with the struggle with the pandemic … (staffers) have all stepped up and done a yeoman’s effort at trying to keep this project program running as originally scheduled.” He noted that many of the delays are “totally out of our control.”
Austin first city where drivers pay for parking in Google Maps
The Transportation Department is rolling out a new parking payment feature to make Austin the first city where drivers can pay for parking within Google Maps. When navigating a route using Google Maps on either iOS or Android systems, drivers will be prompted to pay for on-street parking spaces directly from their mobile phone, eliminating the need to use a parking kiosk. For the new feature, Google has partnered with Passport, the company that already provides technology services for the city and helped brand the city’s ParkATX app. “The city of Austin’s parking team has always had a laser focus on delivering a positive customer experience by making parking frictionless,” said Khristian Gutierrez, chief revenue officer at Passport. Assistant City Manager Gina Fiandaca said the feature “improves convenience while also reducing the need to physically touch parking meters or ticketing machines in light of the current global pandemic.” The announcement comes days after Transportation announced its new “pay-by-plate” system, allowing drivers to enter their license plates for parking sessions up to 10 hours across the city, eliminating the need for parking stickers and the problem of narrow time limits at on-street parking spots.
Extra trash fees are back
It was nice while it lasted, but customers will again be charged for additional bags of trash placed curbside. The fee waiver, which expires on Monday, Sept. 7, was meant to help during the pandemic when so many people were quarantined at home, generating extra garbage. Austin Resource Recovery Director Ken Snipes said in an announcement, “We hope this effort has provided relief for our customers during these uncertain times.” Customers will be charged $9.60 for each additional bag set out with their trash cart, or they may purchase excess garbage stickers at area grocery stores for $4 each. As always, there is no charge for extra recycling, which can be placed in a cardboard box or other reusable container if there is no more room in the blue cart. ARR asks that curbside customers continue to bag and tie their trash, for the safety of the collections crew.
County extends disaster declaration for Hurricane Laura
The Travis County Commissioners Court voted unanimously yesterday to extend the disaster declaration issued Aug. 23 for Hurricane Laura by another week. “We would like to keep it in place out of an abundance of caution,” said Chuck Brotherton, county executive for emergency services. He explained that with this extension, his department will be able to reference the disaster declaration when it reports costs to the state for reimbursement. Eric Carter, chief emergency management coordinator for Travis County, told commissioners that the county worked to successfully house 3,000 evacuees across four counties in the area and that they were able to document most of those people returning home last Friday. He noted the number of evacuees for the storm was triple that experienced during Hurricane Harvey. “It was a significant event by any stretch,” he said.
Name that train
Having taken over the operation of the Zilker Park train, the Austin Parks Foundation is now looking for a new name. In a press release launching the naming contest, APF explains the history of the train formerly known as the Zilker Zephyr. “The upcoming contest follows a history of community involvement in the mini train that has run through Zilker Park since 1961. The park’s first train, the Zilker Eagle ran for over 30 years. The latest version, the Zilker Zephyr, was named in 1997 following a contest hosted by the city of Austin. In May of 2019, the privately operated Zilker Zephyr went out of commission due to track erosion. Now, in an effort to make immediate and necessary improvements as the master planning process is underway, Austin Parks Foundation is currently working with an engineering firm to do a structural assessment and determine what needs to be done. The new Zilker train, which is scheduled to make its debut next summer, will be in the style of a 1940s passenger train, but for the first time ever, will be electric, shaded and ADA-accessible. Austin Parks Foundation aims to raise over $525,000 to fund this project and to date has raised $55,000.” Those bursting with bright ideas for a new name can submit their entries at austinparks.org/zilker-train. The most popular ideas will be announced on Sept. 30, followed by voting on the final names.
What now? Crazy ants!
Just when you thought things couldn’t get any weirder around here, we’ve got crazy ants. According to Austin Water, new populations of the invasive tawny crazy ant have been found at Emma Long Metropolitan Park and Roy G. Guerrero Park. The utility pleads with visitors to these parks to “be on the lookout for these ants and make sure that you do not bring them along with you on your clothes or other items when you leave. Crazy ants are reddish-brown ants about 1/8-inch long that forage in trails or in a ‘crazy,’ erratic pattern of movement. Crazy ant infestations cause incredible amounts of damage to wildlife and electrical systems, and controlling their spread is critical.” If you would like to learn more about these ants and what makes them so cray cray, check out this UT page that describes efforts to control them.
Explore Austin architecture with online guide
Those interested in learning more about Austin architecture now have a handy reference at their fingertips. The colorful, easy to use Guide to Austin Architecture – a joint venture of the Austin chapter of American Institute of Architects and its associated foundation – is now online for all to use and includes an inaugural self-guided walking tour of Austin’s downtown. According to the news release, “While the Guide is composed by experts, special care has been taken to make it accessible to architecture enthusiasts and casual explorers alike. The Guide explores not only buildings and their context, but beloved community-made spaces and places of Austin as well. Maps, text, and images allow for self-led walking tours or virtual forays from the comfort of the couch.” In addition, “Upcoming entries and tours will focus on the concept of Austin-ness and the neighborhoods of underrepresented local communities.” Said Ingrid Spencer, executive director of AIA Austin, “We are thrilled to provide a different tool for people to explore Austin in person or virtually in these unusual times.”
Want to serve on a city advisory council?
The Pedestrian Advisory Council and the Bicycle Advisory Council are looking for a few good volunteers who are “passionate about improving walking, biking and access to transit in Austin.” If that describes you, apply here to join the PAC and here to join the BAC. These volunteer advisory councils meet each month “to advise local agencies on planning, policy, design, funding, education, and enforcement efforts related to walking and biking.” All meetings are virtual, for now. Applications will be accepted through Friday, Sept. 25.
AISD meal sites closed for Labor Day
Austin ISD offices will be closed for Labor Day, Sept. 7, and will resume normal business hours on Tuesday, Sept. 8. The district’s meal sites will also be closed for Labor Day. Students and their caregivers participating in the meal program will receive two meal packs on Thursday, Sept. 3, and three meal packs on Friday, Sept. 4, to provide food for the three-day weekend. “AISD provides free curbside meals for any child under 19, or those over the age of 19 who are utilizing special education resources or currently enrolled in school to complete the requirements for a high school diploma.” View meal site locations, times and pickup requirements here.
Bright Green Future simplifies grant process
The Bright Green Future school grant program has made some changes to its application process in the hopes of simplifying the process for the 2020-21 school year. The program, which provides up to $3,000 in funding for sustainability-themed school projects, has pushed its application window to Oct. 12-26. The second change is, according to the announcement, “instead of applying with original project ideas, we will be offering a menu of options for schools to choose from. These options will be sustainability themed curriculums offered through local nonprofit organizations. The main benefit of this change is that all curriculums can be completed whether you are meeting in the classroom or virtually.” These options will be posted to the Bright Green Future grant page by Sept. 12.
The return of citizen communication
Among the things disrupted in 2020 is Austin City Council’s tribute to free speech, citizen communication, which disappeared when Council members took their meetings out of chambers and onto the internet. (For those who are unfamiliar, citizen communication is a period of time set aside during each regular Council meeting to address anything not on the agenda, and Austinites tend to take that opportunity quite seriously. A random sampling of somewhat recent topics includes “Mobility issues in Rainey neighborhood”; “1) God, Jesus Christ & The Holy Spirit cannot be beat; 2) Cancel chemtrail culture 3) Go online to read Civil Action 92-0449, The Deep State demons must be defeated & their works destroyed”; and simply, “Birds.” At Thursday’s meeting, Mayor Steve Adler noted that citizen communication would return by Sept. 17 at the latest and potentially for Council’s next meeting, which will be held on Sept. 3.
Austin Water to begin aquifer storage and recovery pilot
Austin Water plans to begin designing and constructing a pilot aquifer storage and recovery system after City Council’s vote Thursday to authorize contracts for the initiative. In the first phase of the project, the water utility will evaluate the suitability of multiple aquifers, including the Carrizo-Wilcox, Edwards and Trinity systems, to serve as a storage tank for future water resources. The project is an integral part of Austin’s 100-year integrated water resource plan, also known as Water Forward. In this comprehensive water supply and conservation strategy, the utility identified Austin’s need for 60,000 acre-feet of water by 2040 in order to improve the city’s climate and drought resiliency. To accomplish this goal, Austin Water is looking to leverage the natural aquifers of Central Texas. “We must anticipate future needs and innovate to safeguard the resiliency of our community for future generations. Ensuring adequate and affordable water supply for our customers today and in the future is our focus,” Director Greg Meszaros said in a statement. Storing water underground in enhanced natural systems helps reduce the costs associated with water storage and is a practical way to lessen evaporative loss and make water readily available for withdrawal when other supply sources are strapped.
Be a poll worker on Election Day
The Travis County Clerk’s Office is working as hard as it can to get every single ballot-by-mail application processed in time for the Nov. 3 election. Community members who would like to play a bigger role in this election may apply here to be poll workers and participate in one of the most important parts of our democracy: the vote.
AISD’s back-to-school event goes virtual
In years past, AISD’s Back to School Bash has been a way for families to access services and connect with local organizations before the first day of school. At this year’s necessarily virtual event, families will still be able to access the services of up to 60 community organizations – and get a free car booster seat to boot. Backpacks stuffed with school supplies and informational resources are also being distributed directly to campuses. Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde said in a news release, “I am proud to join a community that comes together to support our students in this year of unprecedented change. The supplies and services available to our families through the virtual Back to School Bash will help our students prepare for the year as we work together to adapt to our new normal.” According to the release, “Since there are no district-wide mandated in-person events for this year’s Backpack Bash, campus leadership teams will decide how and when to safely distribute backpacks to individual students/families. For example, some campuses may choose to hold a drive-through supply pick-up with appropriate approval while following safety guidelines.”
Hurricane Laura evacuees find shelter here
As the high-powered hurricane named Laura barreled toward the Texas and Louisiana coast Wednesday, thousands of people heeded the warning that the storm would be “unsurvivable,” and headed north. At a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Mayor Steve Adler noted that the city had put a little more than 3,000 Gulf Coast guests fleeing the storm into more than 1,000 Austin hotel rooms. Adler called 2020 “a doozy,” as he reported that the city had paid for those rooms, but others had booked their own rooms. However, new arrivals who were directed to the Circuit of the Americas were being asked to travel on to the Dallas/Fort Worth area or Ellis County. Adler and Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe issued disaster declarations in response to the hurricane, allowing the city and county to access funding for the emergency. Austin Public Health Director Stephanie Hayden said Austinites do not need to provide assistance to the evacuees at this time. The Red Cross and the Austin Disaster Relief Network were providing help and could use financial assistance, she said. Juan Ortiz, the city’s director of homeland security and emergency management, noted that when Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast in 2017, the city had only about 850 evacuees. “We’re over 3,000 and Laura has not made landfall yet … There may be more.” Hayden said part of the convention center was also being set up to provide shelter, but she emphasized that the city was taking measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Eric Carter, chief emergency management coordinator for Travis County, noted that teams from Williamson and Hays counties were working with Travis County and the city of Austin to support the evacuees.
Austin Water begins piloting smart water meters
Austin Water has finally announced the long-awaited rollout of its smart meter technology. After initially testing the technology in the River Place neighborhood of Northwest Austin, the water utility will expand its locations for this new pilot program to include 1,920 meters in the River Place/Glenlake and Long Canyon neighborhoods and 2,840 meters in the Windsor Park and Mueller neighborhoods. Over the next five years, the project will replace more than 230,000 analog water meters with electronically read water meters connected to a wireless network. Along with more intelligent meters, Austin Water will establish a customer portal where users can sign up for customized notifications that include daily water use data. “This project will provide our customers and the utility much more data about water use, allow easier communication with customers through the new customer portal and will improve billing accuracy,” Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros said in a press release. The pilot program will continue for one year, after which the utility will spend the next four years installing meters throughout the Austin Water service area to eliminate analog systems.
Austin joins pact to reduce plastic waste
Austin Resource Recovery has joined the U.S. Plastics Pact, a collaborative global initiative aimed at raising awareness about plastic pollution led by the Recycling Partnership and the World Wildlife Fund. According to the press release, the U.S. Plastics Pact “brings together organizations and business across the country including plastic packaging producers, brands, retailers, recyclers, waste management companies, policymakers, and other stakeholders, known as Activators, to work collectively toward scalable solutions tailored to the unique needs and challenges within the U.S landscape, through vital knowledge sharing and coordinated action.” Said Austin Resource Recovery Director Ken Snipes, “By joining this effort, we can reimagine what a future looks like with a thriving circular economy. The city of Austin has a goal of reaching zero waste by 2040 and joining efforts like the U.S. Plastics Pact allows us to take one step closer towards that goal.” Erin Simon of the World Wildlife Fund added, “Plastic pollution is a global crisis that needs local solutions, and the United States is one of biggest opportunities where regional interventions can result in transformative change around the world.”
AISD gets a mobile app
Austin ISD families, students and staff will be thrilled to learn that the Austin ISD mobile app has finally arrived. The app, which is available in your mobile device’s app store, offers district news, individual campus notifications, resources for parents and students and district calendars. The app also features a tool called “Covid-19 Screen and Go,” and links to the Parent Cloud, Parent Self Serve, WheresTheBus, School Café and School Directory. Brenda Richmond, the district’s director of management information systems, who helped lead the development of the app, said she hopes the mobile app will “make the school year a little easier to navigate.” She added, “We have even more robust customization options coming down the pipeline that will include quick access to grades, assignments and ability for families to contact teachers. In January, the app will contain a brand new mobile-friendly student registration feature.”
Austin moves from stage 4 to 3 in Covid-19 risk-based guidelines
With key indicators down, Austin Public Health announced Tuesday that Austin and Travis County are now operating under Stage 3 risk-based guidelines designed to curb the pandemic. According to the chart below, and a news release about the new guidelines, “In Stage 3, higher-risk individuals (those over the age of 65 and those who have chronic medical conditions) should avoid non-essential travel, dining and shopping. Everyone, regardless of risk, should avoid social gatherings and any gatherings greater than 10 people.” In addition, community members are asked to continue the use of good hygiene, social distancing and wearing face coverings to help keep the community safe. “Our key indicators are all showing that we as a community are reducing our Covid-19 numbers, but we need to remain focused on improving the health outcomes for communities of color, who continue to be disproportionately impacted by the virus,” said Stephanie Hayden, APH director. The latest information, guidelines and statistics can be found on the city’s Covid-19 site.
Public hearing on county property tax rates moved
The Commissioners Court has moved the public hearing and associated vote for next year’s property tax rate a week earlier. The public hearing on the tax rate will move to Sept. 8 at 9 a.m. while the vote on the proposed tax rate of 37.4359 cents per $100 of property valuation will take place on Sept. 15. County Judge Sam Biscoe pushed for having a week between the hearing and the adoption of the tax rate, saying, “I have always felt a bit guilty … about having a public hearing at 9 a.m and taking action at 9:30 a.m. or 9:45 a.m.” Commissioners voted unanimously to move both dates up by a week. While Biscoe said there is no telling how many residents will come to comment on the property tax proposal, he noted, “There’s a whole lot there that could be commented on by the public.”