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Homes in the Road
By Kelly Daniel
American-Statesman Staff
Sunday, January 16, 2000

Someone once took a pen, drew a line on a map and unwittingly shaved quiet evenings out of Shawn Barker's future, sliced Lindsley Bratten's business in two, and paved over Ginny Antaya's walk with God.

The ink trail became the Texas 130 highway proposal, an antidote for congested Interstate 35. Where that line flows represents fundamental change for Central Texas, with a 91-mile highway that would stretch from Seguin to Georgetown.

But the most essential question is still undecided: What route will Texas 130 follow on its path east of I-35? In the coming weeks, thousands of people will devour drawings of the possible routes in public hearings, hoping to have their say on moving, keeping or erasing the routes. Hundreds of people's homes, livelihoods and land deals wait on the decision, expected late this year.

Lines on paper. Lives on the line.

"We are really, really hung up," said Antaya, director of the Mercy of God Prayer Center on Yager Lane. Texas 130 is now drawn to run right over the 5-acre center, whose expansion plans have been on hold for years.

The debate follows a familiar path: The state recommends a route west of Lake Walter E. Long in East Austin and west into Round Rock, its choice for years, while Austin, Travis County and Round Rock prefer a highway east of the lake and east of Round Rock. But while the big-picture battle has long been known, the individual effects are only just beginning to be understood.

Among the hundreds in the path of the recommended western route are Bratten, managing partner of Deerwood, a just-finished manufactured home subdivision in Southeast Austin; Barker, a homeowner in Round Rock's Rolling Ridge neighborhood; and Antaya. Hundreds of others are affected by the eastern route, and hundreds more will feel the effects no matter which route Texas 130 takes.

Dismayed developers

The Texas Turnpike Authority, which is considering the $1 billion Texas 130 as a toll road so it can be financed faster and built within seven years, cannot say exactly which homeowners will lose property or otherwise have their lives affected by the various routes. Consultants counted buildings and homes in the path but did not write down addresses or names, said state transportation spokesman Randall Dillard.

Bratten's name would be on the list. And he remains stunned by that fact.

Bratten and his partner, Peter Jacobson, said they were never told Texas 130 would cut through Deerwood, where 40 families are expected to move within a month, joining 188 already living there. The subdivision provides affordable housing under a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development loan program. Residents buy manufactured homes and lease lots from Deerwood, which has yard maintenance and home appearance rules and offers a community center, weight room, pool and other amenities.

Deerwood is singled out by the state's Jan. 4 study on Texas 130 as the neighborhood that suffers the greatest negative outcome from the highway's western route.

"You . . . you can't do that," Bratten sputtered after a reporter told him the direction the highway would take through Deerwood. "There is no way to service the property if you split it down the middle. I've never seen anything like that."

Bratten and Jacobson said they assumed Texas 130 would run just west of Deerwood, through vacant farmland that runs between their subdivision and the Timber Creek subdivision off Pearce Lane, near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. The state rejected using a route through that farmland because it "would have required numerous relocations," further down the line, the Jan. 4 report said.

Unlike elsewhere along Texas 130's suggested route, there had been no outcry about moving the portion that cuts through Deerwood to the east or west.

Dillard said the state's Texas 130 consultants sent letters to Deerwood, asking permission to come on the property to do surveys for the route through the subdivision. Another letter was drafted last February -- but Dillard could not verify Friday if it was sent -- reiterating that the highway would cut through Deerwood, Dillard said.

David Kopp, Texas 130 project director, offered a bit of hope for Deerwood when told of the community's confusion. "Maybe if there is an opportunity to move 400 to 500 feet and miss a community like Deerwood, I think we would still be game for something like that," Kopp said.

In Round Rock, Barker is hoping to hear something similar.

Picking a route

Barker's house, where his family moved two and a half years ago, backs up to an empty field that becomes Texas 130 on the state's highway maps, shimmying between the Rolling Ridge and Round Rock Ranch subdivisions. No portion of his property would be needed for the highway, but the outdoor barbecues he loves to host would be squelched by highway noise.

"You'll be able to fling rocks at the trucks," neighbors teased Barker last week. Like many Rolling Ridge residents, Barker said he failed to understand the magnitude of Texas 130 when real estate agents mentioned the state was studying the empty field for a road. The state picked the western route because years of studies -- including the Jan. 4 report that said none of the possible routes poses a significant environmental threat -- concluded the $913.9 million route would attract nearly 50 percent more daily traffic than other routes, would cost less per vehicle and best meets the goal of relieving I-35 traffic.

"Make no mistake: This is a critical roadway, not only in our area but in the state of Texas and the United States of America," said Pete Winstead, chair of the Texas Turnpike Authority, the agency in charge of the project.

The state's formula concludes the closer a road is to I-35, the better it will relieve congestion on the interstate, Kopp said. Traffic estimates are based on a complex model the federal government requires transportation planning groups to use. Even a five minute difference in getting to Texas 130 will drop traffic use dramatically, the state's consultants argue.

But the computer models don't show as dramatic a difference in going east or west of Round Rock as they do about the path around Lake Walter E. Long, and Kopp said a route east of Round Rock and west of the lake is "a close second."

But the state picked the path between Rolling Ridge and Round Rock Ranch because it misses houses and is closer to I-35, while the route east of Round Rock hits homes, Kopp said. The eastern route calls for moving people from six Round Rock neighborhoods, compared with three on the western route.

Opponents argue the $847.8 million route east of Round Rock and east of the lake is cheaper, harms fewer neighborhoods, better avoids creating a barrier between communities and would still attract enough traffic to make it worthwhile.

"If you are going to take it from Seguin or San Antonio to Georgetown, are you going to care if it's here, or here? No," said Thomas Conner, who's lived in Rolling Ridge since 1996.

A crucial date for Texas 130 comes Feb. 7, when the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization has a public hearing on what alignment it will agree to include in long-term transportation plans. The eastern route has strong support among the planning group's 21 members, who include elected officials from the state legislature, Austin, Round Rock, Travis, Williamson and Hays counties.

The state's Feb. 10 hearings also are a chance for the public to comment in favor of or against the various routes. But since the state has never wavered from the western route despite years of opposition, the hearings are expected to be dominated by those favoring the eastern route. "We could probably go to 15 public hearings in 15 days with 1,000 of us and I can't guarantee it's going to make any difference," Rodney Howard, president of Rolling Ridge's neighborhood association, told eastern route supporters last week.

In limbo

Only a small portion -- $16 million on a $1 billion project -- of money has been set aside for Texas 130, which would be six lanes wide, with about 400-foot buffers between the road and its neighbors. It is expected to be used most often by Williamson County commuters to Austin and NAFTA traffic through Texas.

But although there is skepticism Texas 130 will ever be built -- some opposition groups even disbanded last year during the lull -- there is a growing consensus that Texas 130 is a project Central Texas must have.

Which is fine by Antaya -- if the state would just hurry up.

The prayer center has put off expanding its 50-seat chapel, 15-bed retreat center and community building for years because of Texas 130. Antaya said she, too, never heard from the state that the prayer center would be victim to the highway and found out two years ago only after searching the Texas 130 maps herself.

The center, part of the Catholic diocese, ministers to a mostly Hispanic congregation and to the poor, having moved to its Northeast Austin location four years ago.

"Personally, I would like to see the western route go through, even though it would mean a loss for us here," Antaya said. "I just really think (the eastern route) is too far out."

But with no word from the state on when, or if, the prayer center would be destroyed, there is a touch of frustration in Antaya's conversation. The prayer center, which serves dozens of people a day, is the only church-related building that would be demolished by the western route.

"We're not sure that we are believing that highway is going to happen anyway. So we may just go ahead and do our expansion because we have a need," Antaya said.

But Texas 130 is going to be built, Winstead vowed. And as the agency enters its most publicly active period on the highway project in more than a year, he acknowledged there is much work left to be done.

"People need to understand it better," Winstead said. "And, more importantly, we need to explain it better."

You may contact Kelly Daniel at kdaniel@statesman.com or 445-3618.