Southwest Growth: A Free Way to Bergstrom?

Last year, State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos' aide Richard Hamner told environmentalists that the US290 freeway is not driving development over the aquifer; it's merely supplying road capacity for inevitable growth. However, just as the US290 Task Force was shifting into gear earlier this year, an article in the Austin Business Journal entitled "South Austin Boom Begins" concluded that US290 would "provide the linchpin for developments stretching from the intersection of Bee Caves Road and West Highway 71 to Manchaca Road to the south."

Quoted in the article as the head cheerleader among a squad of developers rooting for US290 was FM Properties Chief Operating Officer James J. Collins, who crowed that rapid access to downtown and Bergstrom made possible by the freeway would fuel growth in the southwest. "The driving distance from the Southwest Parkway and William Cannon to the [new] airport terminal is 13 miles," said Collins. "That is important to FM Properties, not only because it opens access to Barton Creek, but also because FM Properties owns frontage on Southwest Parkway and the commercial portion of the Circle C development."

In fact, US290 might as well be called the "Oak Hill to Bergstrom Freeway." Fast freeway access to the airport is important for opening up the Barton Creek watershed to development because of the high-dollar housing and high-tech business planned for the area. A new airport team report on traffic access to Bergstrom notes that the southwest area already has Austin's highest median household income ($54,200 a year.) "There is a strong correlation between household income and propensity to travel by air," says the report.

Ironically, the plan designed to give affluent commuters living in the Barton Creek watershed freeway access to Bergstrom could bottleneck at I-35, where $73 million is lacking to complete the Ben White/I-35 interchange. New Airport Project Director John Almond complains that some Ben White motorists already sit through six traffic light changes at I-35, and that the situation will become a "crisis" in 1999 when the new airport opens.

Sierra Club Chair Steve Beers says that the Ben White/I-35 interchange should have had a much higher priority for funding in 1995 than the portion of US290 currently being built over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone toward Oak Hill, but that TxDOT and the ATS recommended funding the latter first because of growing environmental resistance and the potential for the Barton Springs Salamander to be listed as an endangered species. "From the standpoint of the average citizen, the marginal project would be the aquifer segment, because it serves fewer people and because it is the most problematic socially and environmentally," says Beers. "But for the people that spend our tax money, the priorities are reversed. For them, the essential project is the one that might get killed off, so that's the one they accelerate. The more-needed project gets delayed because they know that the political base is there to get it done eventually." -- N.E.

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