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Texas 130 fight threatens federal aid, official warns

By Kelly Daniel
American-Statesman Staff
Friday, June 9, 2000

No federal money will be spent on the proposed Texas 130 toll road as long as there is controversy among officials over where to build it, a federal highway official has told Central Texas transportation planners.

The warning from Dan Reagan, federal highway administrator for Texas, comes as elected officials from Austin and Travis, Williamson and Hays counties scramble to prepare for crucial votes Monday on Texas 130 and its route.

The 21 elected officials on the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board, which decides how to spend state and federal transportation money locally, want Texas 130 to be built. But most are not happy with the state's recommended route and must decide how hard they will press for another route.

"Now is the time when I wish one of us had the wisdom of Solomon. But he hasn't popped up," said John Treviño, a member of the planning group and the Capital Metro board.

The state favors a route east of Seguin, west of Lake Walter E. Long in Austin and west into Round Rock, while Austin, Round Rock and Travis County prefer that Texas 130 run east of Seguin, east of the lake and east of Round Rock.

Texas 130, designed to relieve congestion on Interstate 35, must be included in the 25-year and three-year transportation plans that will be voted on Monday night to be eligible for federal money needed to build it. State officials argue that the planning group does not have the authority to specify a route in the plan.

The two sides have known they risk losing Texas 130 money by adopting differing routes, but Reagan's comments are the first warning that money could be withheld because of the controversy itself.

"We're not looking for 100 percent agreement by any stretch of the imagination," Reagan said Thursday. "But it would be inappropriate for us to commit federal funds to something they can't resolve."

On Thursday, Austin City Council members unveiled their latest attempt at swaying state planners to choose the eastern route, with a presentation on how Texas 130 would affect the Walnut Creek watershed. The western route crosses into the watershed and land for future Austin parks; the eastern route does not.

"What I'm not understanding is why it is necessary to go through that watershed and go through those parks," said Council Member Beverly Griffith, one of three council members who requested the report.

Travis County is trying a different tactic, with Commissioner Karen Sonleitner prepared to suggest that the planning group not specify any route for Texas 130, requiring only that the highway adhere to its long-standing planning rules. Only the eastern route meets those rules, which include limits on neighborhood noise and disruption, Sonleitner said.

"I will be the first one to admit that this is going to be like threading the needle," Sonleitner said. "But I think it can be threaded, and I think there is a path that can be taken that will not put this road in jeopardy."

The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization's executive committee voted Wednesday to recommend that the entire group include both routes in the plans Monday. Then, while the Federal Highway Administration reviews the plans, the group could use the rest of the year to negotiate a final choice. The group voted in February in favor of the eastern route.

The Federal Highway Administration has final say on building Texas 130 -- and where it goes -- with a decision expected late this year. The Texas Transportation Commission also must approve Texas 130 before the Texas Turnpike Authority could sell bonds to build it as a toll road.

"The reason we don't let politicians set alignments is, they are often swayed by some of their constituents, who would like to see the road near their shopping mall," said Pete Winstead, chairman of the turnpike authority board. "The job of the (group) is to determine, do we need a facility of this type, not to decide if the road ought to go here or there."

Texas 130 would be built east of Interstate 35 as a six-lane, divided parkway and is being studied as a toll road to help build it faster. Only 40 percent to 50 percent of the $1 billion highway would be paid for from toll revenues.

Monday's votes will be the biggest of the year for the group, which includes the entire Austin legislative delegation and leaders from Austin, Round Rock, Cedar Park, Travis County, Williamson County and Hays County and the state Transportation Department.

Some members have been counting votes and are predicting a close outcome that will put Texas 130 in the plans without a specified route.

"As far as not being included in the plan, I don't think that would happen," said Bill Burnet, a Hays County commissioner on the planning group.

Treviño agreed. "You don't play games with this sort of stuff," he said. "This is too doggone serious."

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