Make your own free website on Tripod.com
State does U-turn on Texas 130

By Kelly Daniel
American-Statesman Staff
Tuesday, July 18, 2000

After years of arguing that a western route for Texas 130 was the best choice, the Texas Turnpike Authority recommended an eastern route Monday, ending one of the biggest transportation fights in Central Texas.

The decision stunned elected officials, neighborhood leaders and residents who have endured bitter arguments, long meetings and scores of hearings about the route. The state received more than 2,000 public comments, mostly in favor of the eastern choice for the highway intended as a bypass for Interstate 35.

"You have been heard, with respect," said Pete Winstead, chairman of the Turnpike Authority.

Texas 130 still must get federal and state approval, and there is no final plan on how to raise the nearly $1 billion needed to pay for it. But the route arguments have been the biggest threat to the project, and the swift end to the debate left people fairly dumbstruck.

"Monumental," said Rodney Howard, a Round Rock resident who fought against the western route, upon being told the news. "Wow."

None of the elected officials or transportation experts interviewed Monday could recall another Central Texas highway project with as significant a change.

"I think there has to be some closure for everybody," said Phil Russell, executive director of the Turnpike Authority. "We have to set the alignment and go forward."

The state's switch was cemented by new traffic estimates that show the eastern route would be almost equal to the western route in attracting drivers. But the change also comes after intense political and public pressure, from U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, down to small neighborhood associations.

The eastern route had been supported by the Austin and Round Rock city councils, the Travis County Commissioners Court and the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, which decides how to spend state and federal transportation dollars locally. None had opposed building the highway.

"I think it's a good decision because it then puts us all -- the city, the county, the elected officials and the community -- all with one voice about building this highway as quickly as possible," said state Rep. Glen Maxey, D-Austin, one of dozens of elected officials who had pushed for an eastern route.

With the eastern route, Texas 130 would run from north of Georgetown, east of Round Rock -- avoiding two large subdivisions that a western route bisected -- and east of Lake Walter E. Long in Austin. It would end east of Seguin, as has long been recommended.

The 89-mile, $847.8 million eastern route would be $66.1 million cheaper than the $913.9 million western route, because it is two miles shorter and straighter.

The state's new traffic projections show the eastern route would attract 9,000 to 18,000 fewer vehicles a day than a western route, instead of the 43,000 difference cited in a 1998 study.

"We have concluded that is not enough of a difference that it renders the eastern alignment not practical and not feasible," Winstead said. "East is a viable, prudent, feasible, reasonable way to build 130."

Winstead and others had argued for years that the western route was best because of the extra traffic, which increased its potential to raise toll revenues -- and thus sell more of the bonds needed to pay for it.

But once the traffic numbers came out as a statistical wash, the Turnpike Authority was bound by federal rules to consider the route that least affects neighborhoods, the environment and parks -- and that's the eastern one.

"I think we have respected the (federal) process . . . and lo and behold, it came up with something that turned out to be popular," Winstead said. He insisted it was the federal rules that guided the choice, not the public pressure. "That is not, is not, what led us to our decision," he said.

The new figures came out of an expanded, "super-regional" demographics model based on population and travel trends in San Antonio and Austin as well as Travis, Hays and Williamson counties. The previous numbers were based on smaller portions of Central Texas.

A 25-year transportation plan adopted June 12 by CAMPO also played into the route change because the plan includes several major Round Rock streets and an updated plan for Capital Metro's starting light-rail line, which weren't included in earlier traffic projections.

The plan included Texas 130 with both routes, so some eastern backers said they still worry the Federal Highway Administration could choose a western path.

The eastern choice still will affect 18 neighborhoods, meaning that scores of people stand to lose their homes, quiet streets and pristine views. But the western route would affect 33 neighborhoods, clip two Austin and Travis County parks and destroy historical buildings and land.

"We are not fooling ourselves: Going to the east, there are going to be some upset people," Russell said.

The state will be giving up millions in toll revenues by building the eastern route, and that will be part of the sales job Winstead and turnpike leaders must do with potential investors. The Turnpike Authority estimates that the eastern route would bring in $4.4 million less in 2007 toll revenues than the western, climbing to $19 million a year in 2025.

Those numbers, combined with a public perception that highway planners often do not listen to citizens, make Monday's announcement all the more remarkable.

"That's very refreshing," said state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin. "It restores our faith that government works for us."

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