At Your Service? Austin's Private Landfills

All things considered, Austin's solid waste services division has more pressing matters on the table than privatizing its trash collection routes. The privatization priority these days centers around the city's disposal services, a lucrative job that has three area landfill owners preening and positioning themselves for the grand prize -- 115,000 tons of garbage and more, if they're lucky.

Shopping around for a private landfill is a duty borne out of necessity, not choice. The new airport in Southeast Austin is forcing the city out of the disposal business in that area -- and in search of a new landfill that will be ready to take on the additional trash by early 1999. Understandably, the city didn't want the cost and hassle of siting, permitting, and building its own facility. Besides, at a time when landfills are in short supply elsewhere, Austin holds the dubious distinction of having no current shortage of these regulated trash heaps. That's good news for city solid waste bosses, who are counting on the blessings of competition to help them swing the best deal possible.

That deal is being laid out initially in the form of a Request for Proposal, which goes out this summer to Waste Management Inc., Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI), and Texas Disposal Systems, the owners of the three local landfills. Waste Management and BFI own landfills abutting one another on Giles Road, off of US290 East. The third and newest of the bunch is owned by Texas Disposal, which bucked Creedmoor-area opposition and opened its landfill in Southern Travis County in 1991. The RFP is also expected to solicit a private company's commitment to building possibly two transfer stations, one north and one south, plus a recycling center to handle the increased variety of plastic and paper goods the city will collect when it expands its curbside recycling program.

The city is in a good position to write its own ticket, either by awarding a single contract to one of the three competitors, or opting for a two-way or three-way contract split with different facilities. San Antonio managed to hold the line on disposal costs a few years ago by awarding a three-way contract, worth an estimated $31 million, to the same three companies. While Waste Management and BFI have facilities in the San Antonio area, some Austin folks, Mayor Bruce Todd included, were none too happy when Texas Disposal began hauling Alamo City trash into Travis County.

From a political perspective, the three competing companies appear to line up this way: Waste Management has political consultant Don Martin working on the company's behalf; Martin was a Todd campaign strategist and remains a friend of the mayor's. Texas Disposal's Bob Gregory has gotten a lot of mileage out of attorney-lobbyist David Armbrust, who's no friend of Todd's but can count Councilmember Ronney Reynolds as an ally. BFI has signed on with public relations czarina Kerry Tate who, as chair of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, likes to think everyone is her friend. Whatever Austin decides to do with its disposal contract, it's going to make good story material, filled with money, intrigue, and trash. -- A.S.

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