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Stalled at the 'Y'? Sounds Familiar

Proposals to move traffic go nowhere

By Kimberly Reeves, Fri., July 6, 2007

The mediation between the Oak Hill neighborhood and the Texas Department of Transportation got off to a bumpy start on Saturday when they failed to agree which environmental group should be at the table and whether toll foes should be involved in the process at all.

The "Y" – that clogged intersection at the crossroads of U.S. 290 and SH 71 – is at the heart of the conflict. When the region's toll plan was unveiled months ago, TxDOT proposed a high-use tollway bisecting Oak Hill. Fix290, a neighborhood group formed to address the "Y" congestion, countered with its own parkway plan. Negotiations stalled, leading Austin state Sen. Kirk Watson – who also chairs the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, the body that makes roadway decisions for Williamson, Travis, and Hays counties – to suggest mediation.

Saturday's meeting was intended to hash out the ground rules for the mediation. During the course of discussion, however, district engineer Bob Daigh offered up the most surprising comment: The design of U.S. 290 does not need to be contingent on tolls, even though highway officials have insisted they simply don't have enough funding to build the road in a timely fashion without some form of toll financing.

"We want to have the design be whatever y'all want to have, whether it's tolled or not," Daigh said. "There could be some impacts on the road from tolling, but here today we're not trying to come up with the money. We're talking about the design process, and we'll let the chips fall where they may. The financing problem is CAMPO's."

That concession might have seemed generous, except for a major problem: Fix290 – represented by Nina Butts and Carol Cespedes – thinks negotiations should be between them and Consensus 290, a group they consider an ally of pro-road County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty. Butts told the group, in her quiet yet blunt way, that she didn't think TxDOT should have a major role in the negotiations at all.

Nor were Cespedes and Butts happy with Daigh's assertion that toll opponents should have no seat at the table. Daigh said tolling was a completely separate issue, one that would only bog down the design decisions. Butts disagreed, saying that toll opponents were a significant part of the Fix290 base of supporters. Fix290 suggested that Texans Against Tolls represent toll opponents in the mediation.

The group could not come to a consensus on that issue, nor on the issue of an environmental seat at the table. Fix290 sided with Save Our Springs Alliance, but business and neighborhood interests consider SOSA too radically anti-road. A compromise was to give the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District a seat at the table, but Fix290 roundly opposed that. Butts said BS/EACD simply didn't have enough clout to carry water on the environmental issues in the Fix290 plan. The Save Barton Creek Association also proposed itself as an alternative.

The group, lacking clear choices, adjourned without making a decision. The next mediation meeting – and all meetings are open to the public – likely will be next Saturday. The goal is to present something to CAMPO early this fall.

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