Prop. 6 there is no question about. Roads direct and predict growth; the notion of building another new road across the Edwards Aquifer is unacceptable. Prop. 5, on the other hand, requires some thought.
I am in favor of Texas 130, an Austin bypass that would start outside of San Antonio in Seguin and come back to Interstate 35 in Georgetown. But I am not sure how I feel about the bond proposition we are being offered. In road building/planning, details are crucial, and some of the most important ones are missing in regard to this one.
I-35 desperately needs Texas 130. I am not so foolish as to expect it to lessen traffic on I-35, even if it achieves its most ambitious projections. But it may significantly cut the rate of traffic growth and divert more big trucks around the city. I'm really perplexed by those who claim that there neither is a problem now nor that it is going to get significantly worse. Texas 130 is not a cure, but it is one of the few reasonable alternatives. Another possibility is to expand I-35, which will affect neighborhoods, be a mess, and take years to complete.
Neither of these will significantly solve Austin's long-term transportation problem. We must develop alternative forms of transportation, and make Austin more bike- and pedestrian-friendly (this includes more residential spaces downtown). Some type of mass transit system, probably light rail, would be at least a decade away from having any significant impact (based on Portland's experience) after it was finished. Since we are years away from starting, we are probably two decades away from having an effect. Meanwhile, every day, the roads get worse. We can punish drivers or we could begin to plan for our future and build some major new roads.
Texas 130 is being promoted as a bypass, but for a variety of reasons, it may not turn out that way. In "Stealth Highway 130" in our July 18, 1997 issue, Nate Blakeslee quotes the head of the consultant team hired by the Texas Department of Transportation, Roland Gamble, as saying "This is not a bypass route." What this means is that the road will feature a lot more points of access, thus encouraging growth over a wider area, which will also bring more local traffic onto the road. And the specifics are in no way set. This proposition authorizes $4 million in bonds to buy right of way, though the route hasn't been completely set yet. There are at least three different routes being discussed, and the "technically favored" one seems to be the one the most groups dislike.
Moreover, the project will be done in segments; if we build this part of the road and the other parts are not built or take time to get built (imagine an economic downturn), Texas 130 will be merely a collector for suburban growth, and dump traffic onto the Eastside.
And as noted above, even if the whole route is built out, if Texas 130 isn't designed as a bypass from the start, it will be a collector for suburban growth and dump traffic onto the Eastside.
Still, a major road project in this day and age is often going to have to be put together piecemeal and the planning stages, especially until money is available for right of way purchase, are slow-moving and cautious.
If we oppose all major new roads, we are not going to slow development, we are going to end up with a transportation nightmare. We will also lose the opportunity to direct growth. This proposed strip of 130 goes through a preferred growth area. This is where we want to build roads because this is where we want to encourage growth, in order to move it away from areas more environmentally sensitive.
So there are real attractions to this proposal: I-35 needs relief and -- here comes some real heresy -- we have to build major new roads to encourage growth in preferred growth areas. Still, trusting TxDOT to share our concerns is unrealistic, and moving ahead on money before the route decisions are made is dangerous. The city can't ask East Austin once again to suffer rather than benefit from growth. Gentrification, especially as Mueller is redeveloped, is going to be one of the Eastside's biggest problems; pouring traffic through it will just accelerate this process by destroying neighborhoods.
So how should you vote? The Chronicle recommends "No." I went along with that because I'm troubled by the problems with this phase of the project, especially the impact on East Austin. I am not really sure how I will vote. I think we need and must work for Texas 130, that it is not frivolous or simply developer-driven, but represents the kind of distasteful project that real long-term planning forces us to accept.
Despite doomsday predictions, maybe if voters reject this it will make TxDOT more sensitive to their concerns. On the other hand, rejecting it will slow the project, damaging its momentum. Think about this one -- it represents the kinds of hard choices we will increasingly be facing in the future.