The Good Earth

TEA for Texas

City staff presented a smorgasbord of transportation improvements competing for federal TEA-21 (that's Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century to you) money. The Texas Department of Transportation doles out the money, which this year totals about $128 million, funding up to 80% of what it deems to be worthy projects across the state. (The remaining 20% percent must come from a local match.) The council will vote tonight (Thursday, July 22) on which transportation projects to submit to TxDOT for consideration (the list has already been signed off on by the Capital Area Metro Planning Organization).

The wish list totals about $48 million, over 30% of the $128 million up for grabs; and naturally, there's stiff competition for the money from other localities, so the city needs a strategy to maximize its piece of the TEA-21 pie. Various transportation partisans showed up lobbying to have their pet projects ranked number one, more popular items being two Downtown Austin Alliance's Great Streets pedestrian improvement projects (about $2 million each); the Seaholm Intermodal Station ($7.8 million), and the Cross-town Bikeway ($3.2 million).

Other projects up for TEA-21 money include:

• The Comprehensive Urban Trails System, $7.8 million.

• Lamar Pedestrian Bridge, Phase 2, $2.8 million.

• Jollyville Road/Loop 360 Bicycle-Pedestrian Crossing, $360,000.

• Barton Creek Bicycle Bridge, $2.9 million.

• Plaza Saltillo, Phase 2, $1 million.

• Roadside Management and Ecological Restoration for the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, $2.1 million.

The projected lineup also lists Downtown Historic Streetscape Improvements ($500,000), Historic Neighborhoods Sidewalk Construction ($600,000), and a Downtown Vintage Trolley Line ($10 million).


A Bridge Too Far?

For a minute during the transportation funding discussion, it looked like the losing side in the design of the Lamar Pedestrian Bridge might get another shot. As part of his pitch for TEA-21 money for Phase 2 of the bridge project, Peter Rieck, director of Public Works and Transportation, said the fancy "double curve" bridge designed by the city would run well over the $5.9 million he estimated when the council approved it last September, and that even a greatly scaled-down version, without all the trimmings, would come in at $5.4 million, not counting an extra $3 million for engineering and other non-construction costs. And it would only extend as far as Third Street, still leaving pedestrians to brave the subterranean sidewalks that run along Lamar under the railroad bridge.

Then Rieck mentioned another, cheaper option: two parallel bridges, each 12-feet wide, on opposite sides of Lamar. Confused onlookers thought Rieck might be offering council members a last-minute "third way" between the cantilever (a one-lane attachment to each side of the bridge) and the double curve.

Opinion at the time of last September's council vote on the bridge design was mixed. Everybody agreed that the Lamar bridge, reputedly one of the only 1940s art deco bridges in Austin, needed to be preserved, but there were two schools of thought on how best to do it. One camp believed that altering the bridge at all (i.e. adding to it or widening it) would compromise its historical integrity (not to mention trigger the forfeiture of $1 million in federal highway dollars). Others countered that the bridge could be expanded in a way that complemented and even enhanced it, and that building a separate and unrelated bridge at the point on the river where the interval between bridges is already at its smallest -- would actually end up competing with and detracting from the historical bridge.

So if the design could be changed at this late date, could the cantilever live again? It was not to be. According to Council Member Bill Spelman, a previous supporter of the cantilever option, "I think it would be hard to find four votes for the cantilever at this point," he said. "I think he was just reminding us about where we've been," said Watson. "We've voted on that [design] several times." Rieck said the misunderstanding resulted from "sticker shock" he received when city consultants read him the list of costs attached to building the bridge as planned, after which he "directed the consultant team to look at the design to see what [else] they could do." Since the original bridge design was able to be scaled down to within budget, Rieck said the issue was settled -- and put the final nail in the cantilever coffin. Because of "severe doubts about structural feasibility," not to mention the likely opposition of the Texas Historical Commission, Rieck said, "the cantilever is definitely dead."


Done Deal

The great CSC contract scare of 1999 is officially over. Before the council unanimously approved all this week's CSC-related items, Assistant City Manager Toby Futrell made a presentation designed to reassure the council, along with any disgruntled reporters or skeptical citizens on hand, that the deal was not in jeopardy, and that furthermore, if it were, it was CSC which stood to lose the most, having budgeted $2.6 million in pre-lease-signing expenditures, two or three hundred thousand of which they'd already spent. Futrell said the expenditures the council approved on Thursday were necessary precursors to having the final lease signed. The city's outside legal counsel of the firm Thompson & Knight, confirmed that it was normal to ensure the availability of a clean, buildable site (which would be achieved by the demolition contracts before the council) before signing the lease.

The only flaw in Futrell's presentation was when T&K lawyer James Cousar disagreed with her statement that "At each stage, there are penalties for pulling out of the agreement. And they are all in our favor." There are "no actual penalties," he said, but there is a "lost opportunity cost for CSC. At this point if they don't come here, it's a tremendous lost opportunity, they've put all their eggs in this basket."

Council Member Beverly Griffith expressed concern about the retail end of the deal, which is in flux since residential developer AMLI, which had expressed interest in taking over the retail that will be on the ground floor of the CSC buildings, reportedly washed their hands of the deal. Originally, the city was slated to enter the retail business with this project, but council members agreed at the April CSC vote that it wasn't the best of ideas. Griffith said she's concerned that if the city gets left holding the bag on the retail, "all the numbers change, and the risk changes."

Also quickly dispatched was the issue design standards for the new City Hall, the council unanimously agreeing with the position of Jesus Garza, city staff, and CSC architect Larry Speck, that the City Hall design should have the option of, but not be limited to, a ground floor council chamber. The dispute centered on which version of the Waterfront Overlay District amendments the council would approve -- the original called for 50% of ground floor uses within the district to be pedestrian friendly; i.e., retail. The staff's version would have simply exempted city buildings from that provision. The Planning Commission recommendation, on the other hand, would have required council chambers to be on the ground floor. The discussion of what kind of uses -- civic or retail, or both -- would be considered pedestrian use, yielded one of the more amusing misstatements by Watson: "If it is a city building," he said, "it is by definition a retail use." Realizing the mileage reporters could get out of portraying that one as a Freudian slip, the mayor pleaded for help. "Somebody stop me before I kill again," he said.


Chestnut News

The council also formally adopted the neighborhood plan of the Chestnut Neighborhood Association, Austin's self-proclaimed Community of Caring and Sharing. A strong contingent of neighborhood planners, justly proud of their two years of work on the project, asked for assurances that the city would follow through with the implementation of their plans. The Rev. Joseph Parker of David Chapel praised the city for hiring a full-time neighborhood planning staffer, suggesting that the person be in the city manager's office. Parker said he was "fearful that the implementation of this plan might be stuck into the quagmire of the departments. ... Our experience has been that you have this kind of high-level discussion with the policy makers, and the managers responsible for implementing the policy don't always make it as high a priority."

This Week in Council: Starting with a 9am work session, council will get a view of the Town Lake Park master plan. At council's regular meeting, a taxicab rate hike is up for consideration, preceded by a 6pm public hearing. Also, council is expected to give the go-ahead for negotiations to proceed on the Convention Center/Hilton Landmark Hotel deal.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Council Watch, Council, City Council, Jenny Staff

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