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Highway Hearings Frustrate Both Sides
By Kelly Daniel
American-Statesman Staff
Friday, February 11, 2000

Almost 1,400 Austin and Round Rock residents crammed public hearings on the controversial Texas 130 route Thursday, although speaker after speaker said they had little hope they'd get what they wanted from the evening.

After all, Austin residents were in the same room at Barbara Jordan Elementary School, looking at the same maps and hearing some of the same explanations, as at past Texas 130 hearings. The familiarity made frustration the night's common theme, no matter what route people preferred.

"I don't know why they are having these meetings, because they don't care what anybody says about it," said Verona Thornton, speaking at the Austin meeting.

Her comment was aimed at the Texas Turnpike Authority engineers and consultants who recommend a route that would pass near her Loyola Lane home. But such words were common from people who agree with the state's choice, and their comments were directed at the lawmakers and local officials trying to fight it.

"I just feel like the engineering and the political sides are never going to come together," said Gigi Brookshire, one of a handful of people at the Austin meeting wearing T-shirts protesting the city's preferred route east of Walter E. Long Lake.

Texas 130, which could cost as much as $1 billion, would be built east of Interstate 35 and is designed to relieve I-35 congestion. The interstate is more clogged through Austin than at any other point on its nearly 1,600-mile path. Earlier studies concluded Texas 130 would reduce I-35 traffic by 21 percent in Round Rock and 5 percent in downtown Austin.

The state envisions Texas 130 as a six-lane highway with 400-foot buffers between the road and its neighbors. Williamson County commuters to Austin and North American Free Trade Agreement traffic through Texas are expected to use Texas 130 the most.

The state argues that the $913.9 million western route -- going east of Seguin, west of Walter E. Long Lake in East Austin and west into Round Rock -- is best, since its studies concluded it would attract nearly 50 percent more daily traffic than other routes, cost less per vehicle and best help relieve I-35 congestion.

"We feel like we are representing about a million ghosts that aren't here, because they are the ones who are going to use the road if it's built western," said Frank Harrison, a western route supporter in a room overwhelmingly in favor of the eastern route.

The eastern option is a $847.8 million route east of Round Rock, east of Walter E. Long Lake and east of Seguin, which supporters contend would be cheaper, harm fewer neighborhoods and attract enough traffic to make Texas 130 worthwhile.

Georgetown, Seguin, Lockhart, Pflugerville and the Caldwell and Guadalupe county governments support the western route. Austin, Round Rock, Travis County and members of the Austin legislative delegation support the eastern route. Williamson County commissioners adopted a pro-western resolution two years ago, but now say their goal is get Texas 130 built -- anywhere -- quickly.

At the hearings, held simultaneously in Austin and Round Rock, people watched a videotape the state made of an aerial trip along the eastern and western routes from U.S. 183 south of Austin to I-35 north of Georgetown. The tape shows the vast amount of vacant land both routes would claim, but also gives a clear vision of how closely Texas 130 would cut into some neighborhoods and the houses and buildings both routes would bulldoze.

"They make it look like it would be far from the buildings, but it's not," Thornton mused, studying paper maps of the routes near her home. On the eastern map, "It's nothing; all it is is vegetation. Look at that."

Just about every Austin highway project involves requests for changes before a final route is approved, and there are cases when public comments have prompted the state to make those changes. The southern extension of MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) was altered in the late 1980s after environmental groups filed lawsuits and raised enough issues to force a change, for example.

But the Texas 130 debate is unusual in the size of the changes -- a wholly new route instead of the one being recommended -- that citizens and elected officials are asking the state to make.

"There's never been a project in Central Texas as big as this project," said Randall Dillard, spokesman for the state transportation department.

The Federal Highway Administration will decide late this year whether to build Texas 130 and along which route, following recommendations from the Texas Transportation Commission. A final report this summer on how Texas 130 affects the environment -- which will include the state's final route choice -- must address the comments it receives from the public from Thursday to Feb. 22.

A regional planning group that decides how to spend federal and state transportation money voted Monday to endorse the eastern route, although its choice is not binding. The group, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, must vote March 20 to include Texas 130 in its long-range plans or the highway will not be eligible for the federal money needed to build it.

"These are the same faces, the same players, the same issues," said Karen Sonleitner, a Travis County commissioner and planning group member. "But it's finally at the point where it's at the turning point for this road."

You may contact Kelly Daniel at kdaniel@statesman.com or 445-3618. American-Statesman staff writer Janet Jacobs contributed to this report.