Austin’s hazmat route study could be scaled back

Hazardous materials

AUSTIN (KXAN) – The transport of hazardous materials through Austin is not a big problem, according to a new memo from the city’s transportation department. The report comes the same week as a KXAN investigation into delays on a study to measure dangerous cargo flowing through the city along Interstate 35.

City staff now want to take more time to look at public safety and security issues. They also recommend scaling back a traffic study, that is required by the state, to possibly move hazardous materials haulers off I-35.

“City staff believes the information (already) gathered…may eliminate the need for a full commodity flow study,” according to a Tuesday news release.

The change of thinking is explained in the memo to mayor and city council. It refers to conclusions made by Dr. David Bierling with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, who says “not much hazardous cargo… passes through the Austin region.” City staff consulted with Bierling in October 2014, the memo shows, more than a year after city council members first called for a road safety assessment. Bierling initially told city staff last summer he would not be available this year to conduct the full study.

KXAN reached out to Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) to see if the City of Austin is sidestepping the intent of the state code by scaling back the flow study, as well as taking advantage of an absence of penalties for not sticking to a set time frame. In early 2013, the city crossed the population threshold of 850,000 laid out in the code requirements.

“We’re watching, as we should…it’s being followed,” said Watson. “I’m being assured by the city and by city management that they’re going to make sure everything is done the way it’s intended to be done and the way that would be appropriate.”

In Texas, the State’s Transportation Commission designates hazmat routes. A TxDOT spokesperson tells KXAN the agency is only responsible for review of the so-called Non-Radioactive Hazardous Material route designation proposals from political subdivisions to ensure they meet federal and state regulations. After confirming that the route has met all the criteria, TxDOT approves the route designation. TxDOT has no regulatory authority to require compliance or enforcement responsibility in this process.

In 2013, Bierling and the TTI completed a similar, but smaller scale study in Williamson County. Its findings have not been publicly released due to security concerns.

Since any flow study could cost up to $1 million and would have to be approved by council, KXAN also reached out to newly-elected council members. Kathie Tovo was part of the 2013 council which called on city staff to assess the safety of Austin’s roadways. The most recent comparable study was done in 2000 by Austin’s Fire Department. It found most of the hazardous materials moving through Austin included gasoline and flammable gasses.

The new city memo also calls hazmat routing a regional issue and enlists the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) to act as a lead entity.

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