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Austin City Council eyes changes after winter storm

KXAN Austin 3/20/2023 Grace Reader
New council starts this week, here's how to navigate Austin City Council meetings © Provided by KXAN Austin New council starts this week, here's how to navigate Austin City Council meetings

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin City Council has 85 items on its Thursday agenda this week, with several of them eying changes following last month’s ice storm. Here’s some of what we’re watching:

Underground utility line feasibility study

After the February ice storm led to millions of damaged trees and hundreds of thousands of Austinites without power, Austin City Council could direct the city to look into burying power lines.

Why don’t we just bury the power lines to stop winter outages?

Austin City Council will consider the measure at its March 23 council meeting. If approved, the city will conduct a feasibility study and develop a long-term plan to prioritize the conversions “for high-priority uses and areas without new construction opportunities.”

“We need to increase resilience as a city for our electrical grid,” Council Member Ryan Alter, who brought the proposal forward, said. “I don’t foresee us as a city burying all our power lines. It’s just something that’s not practical and probably not cost effective, but there are areas where we should probably convert those lines from overhead to underground.”

During a February Austin Energy press conference, AE General Manager Jackie Sargent said burying all of Austin’s more than 5,000 miles of line above ground would cost “billions of dollars.”

She added during a meeting before council that Austin Energy is also working on a third party feasibility study that the utility can point to when the public asks why power lines aren’t immediately buried.

READ MORE: Austin City Council could explore burying power lines after February storm

“We’ve always responded that burying our distribution lines would be prohibitively expensive and very disruptive. We as a utility know this intuitively but the community may not,” she said.

Council Member Vanessa Fuentes is also introducing an item that would look at burying lines during city-funded projects like Project Connect.

Emergency generators at EMS, fire stations

Council could also direct the city manager to take inventory of emergency generators at all EMS and fire stations in the city.

According to the resolution, several Austin Fire Department and EMS stations lost power during last month’s storm.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Council to look at power lines, emergency generators after winter storm

“Several AFD and EMS stations lost power during Winter Storm Mara did not have access to operational back-up generators, depriving on-duty first responders access to warmth and light,” the proposal notes.

“We need to make sure they can charge their cell phones, we have to make sure they can take hot showers, have communications equipment functioning. In wildfire, extreme cold, icy conditions. Anything that Texas weather is going throw at us, we want to make sure that our fire and EMS stations are well taken care of,” Council Member Paige Ellis, who authored the resolution, said.

The item, if passed, would direct the city manager to do an inventory of generators and bring a report back to council by no later than July 1.

Funding to fix city-purchased hotels

Austin City Council is expected to sign off next week on emergency construction contracts for the Pecan Gardens property — formerly the Candlewood Suites hotel — and the Northbridge shelter, with a price tag of half a million dollars.

According to council documents, Belfor USA Group, Inc. responded to both of the locations for water damage.

Council to approve $510K for emergency repairs at Candlewood project, Northbridge shelter

They’re owed $510,312, nearly $80,000 of which will come from the Capital Improvement Program budget and the remaining funding from Austin Public Health’s capital budget.

Read about the extent of the damage and what happens next for both properties in our previous coverage.

Looking at city red tape in the way of housing

Another agenda item, if passed, directs the city manager to make a Technical Advisory Review Panel (TARP) to review criteria manuals that “impact the cost and timelines for housing development.”

According to the proposal, other Texas cities, including Dallas, have similar panels.

“Ultimately what I envision this panel doing is coming up with recommendations on how to streamline the process for building and make it easier and ultimately more affordable to build,” Alter said.

According to documents, the city has ten technical criteria manuals on top of its Land Development Code which include: rules for solid waste, building, transportation, utilities and fire projection.

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