Austin's $10 billion transit package with 3 new light-rail lines drives forward
by John Egan - Austin Culture Map
The Austin City Council and the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority have put the city on track toward a nearly $10 billion transportation overhaul, including three new light-rail lines.
By approving the long-discussed Project Connect plan June 11, leaders from the City of Austin and Capital Metro charted a course for a massive reshaping of the local transportation system.
A major component of the 30-year plan would be the addition of three light-rail lines that would snake throughout the city. More than 36 miles of light rail would connect North Austin and South Austin with downtown Austin and Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. (To see maps of the proposed light-rail routes, visit the Project Connect website.)
Is now the right time to rethink transit in Austin? Local leaders respond to community questions about Project Connect
by Community Impact Newspaper
On June 10, Austin City Council and the Capital Metro board of directors will decide whether to adopt Project Connect—the plan developed by Capital Metro that lays out the future of public transportation in Austin.
The vote in June will present choices for local leaders regarding the technical aspects of the plan, such as where new routes will go, whether rail or bus will be chosen in particular areas of the system and whether to build a tunnel downtown with underground train stations. However, not every question will be answered.
After the June vote, local leaders will still need to decide how to phase in the work and how to set up a financing structure to pay for the project, estimated at $9.8 billion.
According to estimates from Greg Canally, Austin’s deputy chief financial officer, about 40% of the plan would be funded by the federal government, leaving a local investment of roughly $5.9 billion. After Capital Metro and the city go through their respective budget processes this summer, Canally said the city could add a transit referendum to the November ballot authorizing additional revenue to go toward the project.
The amount needed—and the tax increase on property owners—would depend on how much of the plan is funded now and the timeline for construction, all details that have yet to be finalized.
Austin accepting applications for heritage grant program
by Austin American Statesman
The city of Austin Economic Development Department’s heritage tourism division is accepting applications for its grant initiative aimed at honoring and preserving Austin as a place of personal heritage.
The deadline for online applications is noon July 10. Virtual information sessions will take place at 4 p.m. May 20, noon June 5 and 5 p.m. June 24. Registration for the sessions are required at austineconomicdevelopment.eventbrite.com.
The Heritage Grant Program will promote tourism through the preservation, restoration and rehabilitation of historic buildings, sites or districts. Grants will be made on a competitive basis. Maximum amount for capital projects is up to $250,000 per application.
Program guidelines, eligibility requirements and a link to the online application are at austintexas.gov/heritage-grants.
$42 billion Austin-area transportation plan approved
by Philip Jankowski - Austin American Statesman
A regional board of elected officials on Monday approved an influential plan comprised of hundreds of transportation projects with an estimated cost of $42 billion — but not without a certain degree of skepticism and disappointment at the final proposal.
The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization policy board approved its 2045 Regional Plan, a federally required document that lists about 600 projects across the organization’s six-county region.
CAMPO is a federally mandated government organization with a voting body of 20 elected officials. The chief purpose of the organization is to create a long-term plan that must be updated every five years.
The plans are highly influential in determining what area transportation projects get state and federal money for construction.
The final vote was 17-2-1 to approve the plan, with Austin City Council Members Jimmy Flannigan and Alison Alter against it. Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea abstained.
Austin launches $1.2 million lottery to help renters affected by coronavirus crisis
by Mark D. Wilson - Austin American Statesman
More than $1 million in rental assistance will be up for grabs beginning this week through a lottery program launched by Austin’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department.
City officials said the Relief of Emergency Needs for Tenants program, or RENT, will divvy up $1.2 million among 1,000 families in the form of one-time rental assistance payments. The funds will be distributed over the next few weeks through the Housing Authority of the City of Austin.
County sets up new committee to put pressure on city leaders over Expo Center
by Jack Craver - Austin Monitor
Travis County leaders want to put pressure on the city of Austin to help them rebuild the aging exposition center.
On Tuesday the Commissioners Court voted unanimously to set up a nine-member committee tasked with “engaging and educating Travis County residents and community leaders about the value of redeveloping” the facility on Decker Lane.
Rob Golding, CEO of Rodeo Austin, by far the most important expo center user, will be the committee chairman.
City of Austin will implement a $0.15 regulatory fee on shared mobility rides
by Emma Freer - Community Impact Newspaper
The city of Austin will begin charging a $0.15 per trip regulatory fee on shared mobility vehicles, which include electric bikes and scooters, Austin Transportation Director Robert Spillar wrote in a Dec. 10 memo to City Council.
The fee will help fund the additional staff needed to regulate and monitor the city’s shared mobility program.
Between Jan. 1 and Dec. 11, there have been 5,228,382 trips. If this regulatory fee had been in place, it would have garnered $784,257.30.
Council authorized ATD to implement a per trip fee of up to $0.40 during its most recent budget process. City staff then met with shared mobility operators to determine an “appropriate” amount, Spillar wrote.
The regulatory fee is part of a series of revisions that the ATD plans to make to the director’s rules, which govern shared mobility operators.
Council looks at legal options after appeals court throws out housing voucher challenge
by Chad Swiatecki - Austin Monitor
Members of City Council have criticized a recent decision by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to throw out the city’s lawsuit against state Attorney General Ken Paxton over a state law passed in 2015 that prevents cities from requiring landlords to accept federal housing vouchers.
The law was passed in response to a 2014 law passed in Austin that prevented landlords from discriminating against renters based on the source of income they used to pay their rent.
Council voted in 2017 to sue Paxton and the Texas Workforce Commission and challenge the law, with a district court finding in the city’s favor. That decision was nullified last Wednesday when the appeals court found the city didn’t demonstrate that Paxton and the state would move to enforce the state law that was passed to preempt Austin’s law.
Mayor Steve Adler, himself an attorney prior to running for public office, said the city will likely have to force Paxton’s hand by trying to enforce the local ordinance. That action could then set up a different legal challenge if the state intervenes to block the city’s action.
“This ruling seems silly. Our lawsuit was dismissed because the Court of Appeals did not find the state would enforce its law preempting our ordinance if the city tried to apply it. Really?” he said. “I believe the district court’s support of the city’s concern about improper state preemption is correct and we need to figure out a way, somehow, to have the Court of Appeals address the issue of preemption that it just avoided.”
After 7 years, City Council gives initial approval to comprehensive rewrite of Austin’s land use rules, eyes March final approval
by Christopher Neely - Community Impact Newspaper
After three straight days of deliberation, which followed more than 7 years of work, City Council, in its first of three votes necessary, approved the proposed overhaul of the city’s land use rules and moved Austin closer to a complete rewrite of how the city governs development within its boundaries.
City Council approved the proposal 7-4, with City Council members Kathie Tovo, Ann Kitchen, Alison Alter and Leslie Pool dissenting. The vote marked a watershed moment for Austin, which, as a community, has been working since 2012 to completely rewrite its rules governing what can be built in the city and where—rules which have not had a comprehensive revision since 1984, back when Austin still fancied itself a sleepy college town. Many officials project that when 2020 Census data is calculated, Austin will be the 10th largest city in the United States.
It was officially the first vote City Council has taken on proposed substantive changes since the process began 7 years ago. With no more meetings scheduled this month, the vote will be the last City Council takes on the land development code in 2019. City staff and council members project the third and final vote will arrive in March 2020.
Austin’s rewrite of land use rules enters homestretch with upcoming vote
by Philip Jankowski - Austin American Statesman
Seven years have passed and at least $9 million has been spent since a comprehensive plan called for an overhaul of Austin’s antiquated land development code.
The effort has faced numerous challenges, both self-inflicted and from fierce opposition groups. Skepticism also continues to swirl around the latest effort to rewrite city rules on what can be built and where.
But like it or not, the Austin City Council is a week away from its most crucial vote to date on the massive change to the city’s land use code and zoning map.
The council will consider what critics have dubbed the “Son of CodeNext” for the first of three required approvals Dec. 9. The members will decide what recommendations from the Planning Commission should be included in the next draft of the proposed code as well as the staff revisions report issued Nov. 25.
The main goal of the rewrite is to encourage the construction of 135,000 housing units in the next decade without triggering rapid redevelopment of neighborhoods or furthering gentrification.
To achieve that, the proposal before the council would broadly ease restrictions on the size and number of housing units built near high-traffic streets on the edges of neighborhoods, areas known as “transition zones.”
Austin City Council approves code change to expand 100-year floodplain
by Mary Huber - Austin American Statesman
The Austin City Council approved changes to the land development code that will put more homes and businesses in the 100-year floodplain.
Among the changes adopted Thursday is a provision that will redesignate the city’s 500-year floodplain as the new 100-year floodplain, meaning that any structures built in those areas are at greater flood risk and will be subject to additional building regulations. These include requirements that structures be built to a certain elevation and have safe access in and out.
Existing homes and businesses in the new flood zones, of which there are an additional 3,200, will also have to meet these requirements if they choose to significantly remodel or redevelop their properties.
Austin’s aging water pipes leaked 6 billion gallons in a year
Meszaros tells us Austin Water will now be taking on a more data-driven approach
by Kevin Clark - KXAN
Kristine Poland says she woke up one morning in late-September to find her street flooded.
A 12-inch water line blew along Woodrow Avenue, drenching the Brentwood neighborhood.
“I was pulling out of my driveway,” Poland told us, “And I see this geyser, it’s flooding the people across the street.”
Austin Water says the cause of the break is still not known.
When we met with Poland in mid-October, the leak was fixed. However, Public Works crews were fixing the damage it caused to the street.
This is the second time in seven years a water line has blown in Poland’s neighborhood.
As KXAN learned, the number of these breaks in Austin have continued to increase in the years since our initial investigation.
In 2015, the water lost from pipe leaks could fill Lady Bird Lake — twice.
Billions of gallons in drinking water lost. Millions of dollars lost for ratepayers.
“I don’t think that you have to live here very long to drive down a street and see it shut down or detoured,” said Poland.
“Real losses” is a term for actual drinking water lost from city pipes. The city separately tracks accounting losses.
In 2018, the utility had real losses of more than 6.1 billion gallons. The cost of those real losses was nearly $2.37 million.
It’s only the second time the city has lost more than six billion gallons of drinking water in a year.
Only in 2017 did city lose more water, climbing above 6.5 billion gallons lost.
Council approves $3M annually from hotel tax for musicians, venues
by Chad Swiatecki
For the first time, Austin’s city government will provide direct annual funding to the local commercial music industry, including venues and performing musicians.
On Thursday, City Council unanimously approved an ordinance and amendments to city code covering the allocation of the city’s portion of Hotel Occupancy Tax revenue, specifically funding for historic preservation projects and cultural arts. The net effect of the changes will provide an estimated $3 million per year to support the local music industry, with preservation funds going up by an equal amount.
Historically the city’s hotel tax money for cultural arts funding – capped by state law at 15 percent of the city’s total revenue from the tax – was only awarded to nonprofit groups supporting artists and musicians. That meant for-profit music venues, performing musicians and other music-related businesses were prevented from receiving any of the funds from the rapidly growing revenue source.
With Council voting earlier this summer to raise the hotel tax by 2 percentage points to the maximum 17 percent levy allowed by state law, the “buckets” of funding for arts and preservation uses grew in proportion. In recent years, music advocates have stepped up their push to make for-profit entities eligible, in large part because of affordability concerns threatening the livelihoods of musicians and the already slim business prospects of clubs hosting local music.
Community Grant Program aims to increase fair access to Austin's green jobs
by City of Austin Public Information Office
The City of Austin has launched a community grant program to promote climate justice and equitable access to green jobs.
The grants, which will range between $10,000 and $50,000 each, will allow area organizations to research and design ways to close the gap for communities of color on workforce development approaches specifically for the green jobs sector, while also stimulating partnerships between trusted community-based organizations, potential green job employers, and training/education institutions.
Green jobs are those which result in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities.
Austin’s most vulnerable and underserved communities are disproportionately affected by climate change hazards due to historic underinvestment, limited resources, growth pressures, health inequities, and low paying jobs. Yet opportunities can be made out of constraints. Brookings Institution researchers found that mean hourly wages in green energy sector jobs are anywhere from 8 to 19 percent higher than the national average wage. And for entry-level jobs in this same sector, they find a $5 to $10 per hour pay premium compared to other entry-level jobs.
The new grant program is a joint project from the City of Austin’s Innovation Office, Equity Office, Sustainability Office, and Economic Development Department.
Austin City Council could cut Travis County off from hotel tax
by Philip Janowski - Austin American Statesman
The Austin City Council could undercut Travis County in a bid to generate money from hotel taxes for major redevelopment projects.
If the city maxes out the hotel tax rate, it could generate a $20 million-a-year windfall for Mayor Steve Adler’s effort to expand the Austin Convention Center. But it would also undermine the Travis County Commissioners Court, which is exploring the option of collecting that tax money to redevelop the Travis County Exposition Center.
After county commissioners last week began discussions to call for a November election to raise the hotel tax rate, city leaders on Monday took last-minute steps to put on the council’s agenda a vote on raising their own hotel tax to the maximum rate. Doing so would preclude the county from holding an election, thereby impeding the county from raising the funds, because the maximum rate for all jurisdictions will have been reached.
Austin seeks solutions for inefficiency in city permitting processes
by Olivia Aldridge - Community Impact Newspaper
Builders in the Austin area are well aware of criticism from locals who have said private and commercial projects take much longer to complete than originally proposed. Similarly, city of Austin officials said they know they are frequently criticized by developers for having a lengthy and sometimes overwhelming permitting process.
Businesses such as South Austin Beer Garden, for instance, have experienced significant delays. SABG first discussed delays with Community Impact Newspaper in 2016, then already a year past when plans for the business were announced. SABG finally opened in May of this year.
Josh Bumb, an owner of Moontower Saloon, located near SABG, said while permitting lasted months rather than years for his most recent South Austin venture, Vincent’s Sports Pub, costs related to permitting towered at around $200,000. The restaurant and bar opened in October 2018, almost a year after Bumb’s original goal of opening in November 2017, which he told Community Impact Newspaper during early stages of development.
“Everybody on our end will tell you it’s exorbitant price that can break you, and it simply takes too long,” said Bumb.
While developers have complained of slow processing for years, the 2015 Zucker Report made the criticism official. The 800-page report by independent consulting firm Zucker Systems concluded the city should invest $4.25 million to improve Austin’s planning and development review department.
In 2018, Rodney Gonzales, then director of the newly branded Austin Development Services Department, told Community Impact Newspaper the report was “a personal blow” to development staff.
Austin Speeds Up Timeline For Adopting Changes To Drainage Rules
by Dalyah Jones -KUT
The City of Austin is expected to consider changes to the land development code and drainage rules by the end of the year, speeding up its timeline to mitigate increased flood risk in the area.
“The sooner these regulations get put into effect, the more we’re protecting the public from flood hazards that we have known to occur,” Kevin Shunk, the city's floodplain administrator, said.
Last year, a federal study of historic rainfall data, known as Atlas 14, found a 30 percent increase in the amount of rain that can fall in a 24-hour period in the Austin area.
The city's Watershed Protection Department has recommended adopting interim changes to the land development code to prevent further development in areas designated at greater flood risk. It proposes redefining 100-year floodplains as 25-year floodplains, and 500-year floodplains as 100-year floodplains.
The department proposed incentivizing residential development to make structures more flood-resistant, extending a Colorado River building exception to Lake Austin and parts of Lake Travis, and requiring the lowest floor of buildings in the 100-year floodplain to be at least 2 feet off the ground.
The city will also be revising rainfall values used to build different types of drainage infrastructure, like storm pipes.
Austin Water pours new investments into South Austin wildlands
Olivia Aldridge - Community Impact Newspaper
16 June 2019
In recognition of a $10 million investment the city of Austin recently made in wildlands that feed into the Edwards Aquifer, Austin Water Wildland Division staff led a tour of water quality-protected lands on June 14.
The city’s recent acquisition of the Anthem Tract in Hays County, which includes the Mustang branch of Onion Creek, was funded by a $72-million-dollar bond passed by Austin voters in 2018. Like water on other city-managed land surrounding Onion and Barton creeks, the Anthem Tract’s groundwater feeds into Barton Springs.
Guides for the June 14 tour said the newly purchased tract was not available for touring due to heavy mud, but were able to explain the city’s water research and conservation procedures at the Onion Creek Management Unit, also in Hays County.
The tour included a demonstration of the use of filters to increase water quality entering caves in Onion Creek that feed Edwards Aquifer. According to Kevin Thuesen, environmental conservation program Manager for Austin’s Water Quality Protection Lands, water from the Onion Creek watershed contributes 33% of the water in Barton Springs, and water from the Onion Creek Management Unit takes just three days to feed into the springs, making impurities important to manage.
“Instead of just buying the land and sitting on it and saying that’s good enough, what the city has done is we’ve created a land management plan that’s renewed every 10 years and says, ‘Here’s how we’re going to manage this land to protect water quality,’” Thuesen said.
Austin City Leaders Consider Where to Spend $12M Earmarked for Creative Space
6 June 2019
The City of Austin’s Arts and Music commissions are seeking public input on how to disperse $12,000,000 of bond money designated for creative space.
- Residents invited to take survey
- Public meeting on June 8
- $500,000 set aside for research
Voters approved a bond proposition in 2018 authorizing funding for arts and cultural facilities, libraries, and museums.
Now the Austin City Manager must present to City Council recommendations that take into account the suggestions of the Arts and Music commissions.
Austin, Texas – In May 2019, The Austin Code Department and the Development Services Department are participating in the 39th annual Building Safety Month, a worldwide campaign presented by the International Code Council, its members and partners to promote building safety. First observed in 1980, Building Safety Month raises awareness about critical safety issues from structural to fire prevention, plumbing and mechanical systems, and energy efficiency.
Local events to celebrate Building Safety Month include:
May 1 and May 4
- Reaching out to developers and construction professionals with tabling events hosted at the Building Safety Month national sponsor Home Depot
- Both departments will participate in a proclamation
May 21 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
- There will be an informational Live Permit Chat, an online question and answer session on Reddit - Go to austintexas.gov/permitchat for more information. On the event day, the live chat link will be activated.
Building codes and the officials who enforce them are making our families and communities safer and more resilient. Homes and buildings that are built in compliance with building safety codes result in resilient structures that minimize the risks of death, injury and property damage. In the wake of a disastrous hurricane season, rampant wildfires and devastating earthquakes, building safety is even more important. Building safety affects everyone and modern, updated building codes save lives.
This year’s themes are:
- May 1–5, Preparing for Disasters: Build Strong, Build Smart;
- May 6–12, Ensuring a Safer Future Through Training and Education;
- May 13–19, Securing Clean, Abundant Water for All Communities;
- May 20–26, Construction Professionals and Homeowners: Partners in Safety; and
- May 27–31, Innovations in Building Safety.
Building codes have protected the public for thousands of years. The earliest known code of law—the Code of Hammurabi, king of the Babylonian Empire, written circa 2200 B.C.—assessed severe penalties, including death, if a building was not constructed safely. The regulation of building construction in the United States dates back to the 1700s. In the early 1900s, the insurance industry and others with similar concerns developed the first model building code.
Today, the International Codes, developed by the Code Council and adopted by our community, are the most widely used and adopted set of building safety codes in the U.S. and around the world.
Learn more about Building Safety Month at buildingsafetymonth.com, join the conversation on social media at #BuildingSafety365, and log in to the Live Permit Chat on Tuesday, May 21 from 11 AM to 1 PM at austintexas.gov/permitchat.