AUSTIN ANSWERED: Quick answers to 8 more questions on traffic, trees

8:50 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2017 Local
What do you wonder about? Ask us anything.

Austinites are curious folks — and we mean that in the best possible way, of course.

In the month since we’ve launched Austin Answered, a project to gather readers’ questions about our community, we’ve fielded more than 350 queries on everything from the nightly destination of the Congress Avenue Bridge bats to the backstory of the Maufrais name you see stamped on downtown sidewalks.

Your questions prompted us to look at how often bicyclists get traffic citations and why the right-turn lane in front of the Yeti store remains barricaded off. And now we know what the algae experts and the rulebooks say about swimming in Austin-area waterways.

Because great minds think alike, we’ve also heard from readers asking some of the same questions that our reporters have raised in recent stories. Here’s a quick rundown of some of them:

1. What exactly are they doing to I-35 south of Texas 71? And when will it be done? Crews kicked off work in the summer of 2016 on $79 million of improvements to Interstate 35, roughly between Stassney Lane and William Cannon Drive. The work includes adding an entrance-and-exit lane on each side of that stretch, replacing the overpasses with wider bridges, adding U-turn bridges and altering ramps to and from the frontage lanes. You can read more about the nitty gritty here, but bottom line, expect the area to be a construction zone until 2020.

2. What’s the deal with the law enforcement officer stationed to help drivers coming out of an office building on Barton Springs? Transportation reporter Ben Wear wondered that same thing back in January, and he learned that Austin Energy hires those off-duty police officers help its employees drive in and out of the utility’s headquarters at 721 Barton Springs Road. It’s not unusual for businesses or churches to hire off-duty officers to help with traffic flow, though in the case of Austin Energy, about $57,000 in public funds goes toward that purpose.

3. Can the public still go up the U.T. Tower? Under limited circumstances, yes. The top of the University of Texas tower, where Charles Whitman shot more than three dozen people in 1966, closed in the early 1970s after a series of suicides. It reopened in 1999, but people can only go up as part of an organized tour, escorted by three UT police officers, Tower tours coordinator Brittany Woods told us last year. Or go at your own pace, and without climbing all those stairs, by taking our compelling virtual tour.

4. When will the new Central Library open? After a few setbacks, the city recently announced an Oct. 28 grand opening for the new flagship facility at at 710 W. Cesar Chavez St. Staffers are busily moving books in from the Faulk Central Library, which will cease operating as a library Sept. 16, though Faulk will get a new life as an archival and display space for the nearby Austin History Center.

5. Is Winn Elementary really built on top of a landfill? Yes. The school near Manor Road and U.S. 183 sits atop the former Winn-Cook landfill, which was used from 1952-57, according to our archives. Testing in 2006 indicated high levels of methane in the soil, but school officials emphasized the gas, which dissipates into the atmosphere, was not found in any of the buildings. Winn is the only Austin school on a landfill, but parts of Zilker Park and Mabel Davis Park sit on old landfills, too.

6. Is the Governor’s issue with trees a personal matter? Gov. Greg Abbott has repeatedly criticized tree ordinances like Austin’s as a form of government overreach onto a person’s private property. And he does have first-hand experience as a homeowner dealing with Austin’s rules, as reporter Elizabeth Findell explained in June. You can read all about the permits and the pecan trees dustup here.

7. What has been decided or voted on about the “heritage” trees? Which are “heritage” trees? And which are protected trees? Austin’s tree ordinance gives special protection to “heritage” trees, which have trunks at least 24 inches in diameter (measured from 4 1/2 feet from the ground) and belong to one of these 10 species. Property owners must prove a heritage tree is diseased, a safety risk or preventing a reasonable use of land in order to get a permit to remove it. But the city’s tree ordinance also requires property owners to get a permit to remove any species of tree with a trunk at least 19 inches in diameter; and getting that permit typically involves paying into a tree fund or planting replacement trees.

As part of the recent special session, Abbott wanted a bill that would nullify local tree ordinances. Instead, he received a bill requiring cities and counties to give property owners the option of planting replacement trees rather than paying a fee, which Austin’s ordinance already allows.

And while we’re talking about trees…

8. What are those metal discs with numbers stamped on them that I see nailed to trees in the parks and trails? The city puts these ID tags on larger trees in parks to help officials track which ones need pruning or other maintenance. “The tag makes an easy reference point to ensure that crews are working on the assigned tree,” city parks spokeswoman Shelley Parks told us.

Quite separate from that function, and surely beyond anything officials intended, those tree ID numbers came in handy a couple of years ago when the modern art installation Hello Lamp Post allowed people in Austin to exchange text messages (sort of) with trees, bus stops, fire hydrants and other objects by using their unique identifying number. (Please don’t ask us to explain that one.)

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