Hitting the Pavement
Nobody Said SH 130 Would Be a Smooth Ride
Where were you three days before Christmas 1986? If you were a member of the Texas Transportation Commission, you were busy issuing Minute Order 85260, authorizing The Agency Formerly Known as the Highway Department to "conduct a feasibility study for an I-35 alternate route between Austin and San Antonio." Thus begat Highway 297, which then lay down with MoKan to spawn what we now call State Highway 130. For a generation, SH 130 has been lurking off the edge of the Central Texas map. Now, with the release of its draft environmental impact statement (EIS), we're getting our best view to date of what SH 130 will look like. Not that you'll be driving on it tomorrow, but the EIS process -- including public hearings on February 7 and 10, then revisions to the draft, and then a federal go-ahead, or not, by year's end -- is the last official hurdle SH 130 needs to clear. After that, and barring litigation, it's all a matter of money.
Politically, SH 130 has already cleared its last hurdle. Many of you weren't here in December of 1986, which in itself tells the story. Since then, the population of the metro area has doubled, and -- conventional wisdom holds -- the lack of a decent north-south highway east of I-35 has helped force that growth into the Bad Places to the west of the interstate. And traffic congestion on I-35 is our No. 1 policy problem, with national implications in the NAFTA era.
So it requires bravery or chutzpah to stand up now and say no to SH 130, in any form. It's easy, though, to take a swing at the the Texas Turnpike Authority's preferred SH 130 route, which swings closer to I-35 and is anything but preferred by Austin, Travis County, and Round Rock. And there are plenty of potential impacts -- from paving over remnant prairies to fouling the Edwards Aquifer to violating the Civil Rights Act -- that might push SH 130 off on a lengthy bypass route of its own, via the courthouse.
But if SH 130 actually dies -- rather than just being delayed -- it will have starved for lack of $1billion in funds, even after the controversial decision to float SH 130 as Metro Austin's first toll road (and to transfer direct custody of the project to the Turnpike Authority, a division of TxDOT). The one local entity that has enough money to fill SH 130's purse is Capital Metro, which is currently doing its own EIS for a light-rail project that will likewise cost a billion in scratch. If light rail gets voted down, SH 130 is the most politically likely Plan B for that funding.
If and when the money is rounded up, it won't be for a few years, each of which will make the problems SH 130 is supposed to solve ever graver. But now is the time, with the EIS, to think about where SH 130 will go, how that route will impact its surroundings, what to do about those impacts, what the real cost of the road will be -- both in dollars and headaches -- and how all of those things will change our life, for better or for worse, until death do us part.
You've heard plenty about east and west options for SH 130, but there are actually three different segments (see map, p.22) where TTA has studied an eastern and a western alignment for SH 130. This means there are eight (2 x 2 x 2) options on the table, of which No. 3 -- which would be west/west/east -- is the "preferred alignment." (No. 1 -- west/west/west -- would be the runner-up; No. 2 -- east/ east/east -- would be Austin and Travis County's preferred choice.) The longest stretch over which TTA has studied only one alignment, from south of Del Valle past Mustang Ridge to Lockhart, largely follows the existing U.S. 183 right of way. The basic design (see "What Will It Look Like?," below) of the road is the same for all eight options.
Which Route to Take?
What makes No. 3 special? The same thing that makes it problematic -- the western alignments through Williamson and Travis counties put SH 130 closer to more people and thus make it a more attractive alternative to I-35, say the planners. They also put the highway in more people's back yards, and the jurisdictions with the most of those back yards -- Austin, Travis County, and Round Rock -- are the ones opposed to a western route, even though they also have the most drivers and destinations now being ill-served by our rusty road network.
Both Austin and Travis County have for years held that an SH 130 on the near side of Lake Walter E. Long is bad for East Austin. "My constituency, including myself, are vividly opposed to a western alignment, costing more money and displacing more folks," says Travis County Commissioner Ron Davis. "So we're going to have to come back to the table to get an eastern alignment, where it's in an area where the people won't be overwhelmed. I'm sticking to my guns on that. It will be the eastern alignment."
Davis and what army, you ask? The cavalry that forces SH 130 east of Lake Long may come armed with Title VI of the U.S. Civil Rights Act and with Presidential Executive Order 12898 of 1994, which together prevent federally funded projects from creating disproportionate adverse effects among minority and low-income populations. The SH 130 EIS spends pages and pages dissecting the environmental-justice issue, but concludes that a) the difference in impact between the "west lake" and "east lake" options is negligible, and b) the folks along the path of Option No. 3 aren't really any poorer or less white than those along the other alignment options, and c) even if they were, SH 130 isn't being dumped on them specifically.
But not everyone will be convinced -- or dissuaded from filing a civil-rights action -- by this analysis, largely because the EIS (and not just on this issue) takes a vague approach to what the pros call "secondary and cumulative impacts" of the SH 130 project. Sure, there aren't that many people right in the path of SH 130 regardless of where it goes. But a "west lake" alignment may create more problems for East Austin as a whole -- gentrification, land-use conversion, resource shifts away from other community needs, et al. (There is also the question of whether a toll road on the Eastside, compared to the free highways all over the Westside, is itself a discriminatory action.)
These could be viewed as environmental impacts that need to be mitigated, but they aren't in the current EIS. "There's a lot of potential growth in Precinct 1 already," Davis says, responding to the assertion -- included in the EIS's enviro-justice analysis, and advanced by Lord knows how many others -- that Eastside development spurred by SH 130 would be a benefit, not a problem. "Our problem is making sure that we have enough affordable housing to keep people at home, [and] that growth isn't completely unmanaged."
Meanwhile, Round Rock ain't no happier about a western alignment through -- not past -- its ever-expanding settlement. "Right now, I-35 cuts off the western third of my city and ETJ," says Round Rock planning director Joe Vining. "The preferred alignment for SH 130 will cut off the eastern third of the city and ETJ. At the pace this project has gone" -- that is, slow as molasses, while Round Rock grows faster than a weed -- "the western alignment will be going right through the heart of town."
Indeed, the SH 130 corridor in Williamson County is already far more urbanized than it is in Travis County. TxDOT already owns the abandoned MoKan railroad right of way that it intends to use for SH 130, but right up to the edge of that right of way are some of the biggest residential projects in Metro Austin -- places like Churchill Farms, Forest Creek, and Chandler Creek, where homes cost more than the metro-wide average, and sticks are flying up in the air with alarming speed. The people in those neighborhoods are, to put it mildly, not happy. And the Williamson Co. population is growing at about 9% a year.
So imagine what the corridor will look like 10 years from now, when and if SH 130 is actually rendered in concrete. "Our plans prefer an eastern alignment, but at the rate things are going history will repeat itself," says Vining. "When it happens, that area will be filled with people who don't want a NAFTA highway in their neighborhood. I don't see the road as a great opportunity to manage growth or channel commercial opportunities. It's taken so long that now, too many people are affected in a seriously negative way. Citizens of Round Rock are looking at their neighborhoods and schools and saying they can do without SH 130."
Unlike the city, though, Williamson County decided to endorse whatever alignment the state chose. "That was back when we thought everyone was on the same page on a preferred route," says Williamson Co. Commissioner Mike Heiligenstein, whose precinct includes Round Rock. "We did what we thought everyone wanted us to do, and we still don't think the routing is properly our issue, as long as it gets built. But I don't disagree that the people of Round Rock should make their preference known."
Contrasting with the concerns of Austin and Round Rock is the view that, in Heiligenstein's words, "for an interstate highway like I-35 to get as congested and counterproductive as it has become is an embarrassment for this region." The EIS goes into great detail explaining how our highway traffic wastes time, dirties the air, kills people, and costs millions a year -- and will cost twice as many millions in the future ($123 mil vs. $51 mil) if we don't build SH 130.
The Tolls of I-35
And the preferred No. 3 makes the biggest dent in those costs, according not only to TTA but to the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO), arbiters of the official Metro Austin regional transportation plan, which is using a different set of numbers than TTA. "People take the shortest, fastest route to where they're going," says CAMPO director Mike Aulick. "If there's no road going exactly where they're going, they'll find the route closest to that. The farther east you put SH 130, the less impact it will have on I-35 and U.S. 183." (How much less? See "Traffic Report" chart, p.26, which presents the estimated traffic, on SH 130 and on other major routes, in 2020.)
Since SH 130 would not run directly into downtown, any alignment will put more traffic on the roads that connect it to I-35. (However, Aulick notes that "though the number of employees in downtown will grow, downtown's percentage of the overall employment base will drop" by 2020.) U.S. 290 is the most adequate to the task, and the TTA position is that, with a western alignment that puts drivers from Williamson County closer to town, the bulk of that traffic will cut across on U.S. 290. With an eastern alignment, it will be shorter -- though not necessarily faster -- to use MLK/FM 969 and other East Austin arterials to get into the city.
But many Austinites are not convinced of this analysis, and worry that either SH 130 alignment will overwhelm Eastside surface streets. "The thing that scares me the most about SH 130 is that MLK is going to become a superhighway; you'll have a huge demand to widen MLK and knock down businesses and neighborhoods," says Trans Texas Alliance director Karen Akins, a longtime SH 130 critic. "If it weren't for the fact that some of our richest and most powerful citizens live off Enfield Road, that would be an eight-lane highway. There's nothing stopping that from happening in East Austin."
This is another one of those "secondary and cumulative impacts" that the EIS treats in a way that SH 130 detractors will find less than pleasing. Since upgrades to the roadway network are already planned throughout the metro area, they aren't viewed as impacts of SH 130, and TTA takes the term "improvement" literally -- they will "improve local and regional travel conditions within the corridor, which will help to sustain growth throughout the region." That is, they're a good thing.
And SH 130 will itself improve conditions on a lot of local roads other than the major freeways, says TTA. This is a position supported both by CAMPO's numbers and by local policy-makers, especially in Williamson County. "We think either route positively impacts our county road system," says Heiligenstein, "because right now we have a lot of people traversing county back roads looking for ways to get from north to south."
But this view presumes that upgrades to roads such as MLK, 51st Street, Manor Road, or FM 973 are inevitable, which Aulick questions. "We don't see major differences in traffic volume (between an east or west alignment) on those roadways west of U.S. 183," he says. "The problem is extending those roads all the way out to SH 130, and I'm not exactly sure how we're going to do that." And Williamson County's recently adopted transportation plan, which calls for ambitious upgrades to the county road network, will cost quite a bit of money that the county's notoriously tax-averse voters have yet to provide.
Even though roads like MLK might need to be rebuilt to carry SH 130 traffic, thus displacing homes or businesses or agricultural land, the EIS does not view those needs as SH 130 impacts. Yet even if you accept the premise that SH 130's impact extends no farther than its actual right of way, there are still a number of hot spots along the path of Option No. 3 that will need mitigation.
On the Chopping Block
Foremost are the 33 neighborhoods TTA has identified as being impacted in some way -- whether by relocation, noise, increased local traffic, visual intrusion, or general "proximity effects." While the EIS offers an exact count -- 186 -- of households that would need to be relocated from the No. 3 right of way, it notes that "development in the SH 130 study corridor is ongoing, and -- the number of displacements is expected to change before right-of-way acquisition begins." Most of these relocations are from manufactured-housing parks; 68 are from the Live Oaks at Berry Creek RV park, which sits right smack dab at the northern (I-35) terminus of SH 130. Others, so far, would come from small developments near Georgetown, Pflugerville, Del Valle, and Mustang Ridge.
The No. 3 route also runs through a number of platted but unbuilt subdivisions, as well as through agricultural land that will almost surely be converted to rooftops once the highway is built. This, ironically, is one of the reasons why the EIS -- with support from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture -- concludes that none of the farmland is so valuable as to need protection, though this finding refers only to 3,712 acres of "important" farmland that will disappear under the right of way.
As for purely "environmental" impact, the biggest hot spot is a vacant parcel in Round Rock south of the Rolling Ridge subdivision (off Gattis School Road) referred to as the MoKan Prairie, which is a rare remnant of indigenous prairie flora directly in the No. 3 right of way. There are also scattered wetlands that may require action under the federal Clean Water Act, as well as potential habitat for rare species that, by the time the road is built, may be federally protected, and the EIS also envisions issues with the SH 130 bridge over the San Gabriel River, within the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone (see "SH 130 Hot Spots," left).
Also of concern to local greens and progs will be SH 130's impact on parks, trails, and historic sites. The No. 3 alignment goes through the Kenney Fort site in Round Rock, which is already listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it may impact other sites eligible for NRHP listing, and it goes through Austin's Colony Park and a Travis County park. (All the alignments were tweaked to avoid going through Old Settlers Park in Round Rock.)
More famously, it goes through places where both the city and county would like to build parks, in Austin's case with the "destination park" bond money approved in 1998. The analysis of both parkland and cultural resources in SH 130's path, as well as in its "area of projected effect" within one-quarter mile on each side of the road, is nowhere near complete. Federal law prefers that TTA go around such places.
In all of these cases, the "secondary and cumulative impacts" of development along SH 130 will likely be far greater than will the impact of the road itself. The question raised by the EIS -- in its own defense -- is whether SH 130 will genuinely be responsible for that development.
The Road to Growth
This is the ugly chicken-and-egg question that bedevils all road planning. The borrowed cinematic cliché "Build it and they will come" is trotted out for every highway project, and there's no shortage of sentiment that SH 130 is, in Karen Akins' words, "an economic development project that will relieve congestion for about two years, rather than a real mobility improvement."
But one need only travel through areas in the SH 130 corridor like the southern edge of Round Rock, or north from Samsung (which is right next to the No. 3 route) around Yager Lane or Dessau Road, to see that the absence of good highway access is not enough to stop rooftops from going up. "SH 130 is only one factor in creating favorable land development conditions," says the EIS. "Secondary social, economic and environmental impacts -- have already resulted from development [within] the corridor [and] will continue to be felt -- regardless of whether SH 130 is built."
Thus TTA gently washes its hands of impacts -- from gentrification to farmland conversion to burdening the East Austin street network to losing habitat of the rare mountain plover -- of development along SH 130. All of these, it should be noted, would cost local money to address. "There are tradeoffs citizens will have to make," says Akins. "If people start to understand not only the environmental impacts, but the cost of upgrading county roads or developing major commuter corridors within the city limits, they'll see that SH 130 isn't being paid for with unlimited free money."
But TTA's stance is made easier by Austin's Smart Growth Initiative, which SH 130 would probably help more than it hurts. "Transportation-related disadvantages within the city's "Desired Development Zone' [will] hamper the City of Austin's goal of encouraging projected residential and commercial development -- east of I-35," says the EIS. And "development initiatives that encourage growth east of Loop 1 (MoPac) -- indicate that corridor congestion problems will continue to worsen unless action is taken."
So Smart Growth both depends on and makes necessary SH 130. Well, maybe. In Akins' words, "the issue is not whether there will be growth, but whether it'll be growth that increases or mitigates our existing traffic problem." After all, the EIS notes that SH 130 "could induce -- a "sprawl' model of suburban growth." And even if the city succeeds in making Smart Growth sustainability, transit and pedestrian orientation, and mixed uses and density the norm in the SH 130-served DDZ, "the predominant land use pattern within the corridor is not of this type," the EIS notes a little tartly.
This is why we have horrible mobility problems -- people have to drive everywhere they have to go. And building a new highway is not an incentive to change that pattern, even if growth is happening without the road. "You do all the projections based on current patterns to make a good road project," says Aulick, "but once the road gets built, it becomes the chicken, and land use becomes the egg."
In any event, local policy-makers are pretty unanimous that Austin, Round Rock, Georgetown, Pflugerville, Lockhart, and Seguin should, in the words of Austin planning director Austan Librach, "look seriously at annexing along and around the corridor and around the interchanges, to manage the kind of growth that would occur as a result of the highway." In SmartGrown Austin, Librach suggests, that would involve "a hard look at transit-oriented development. Traditionally, we've concentrated highway development around intersections, because that's where the autos are. To make it more neighborhood-oriented, we would concentrate between the intersections." This would partly depend on whether the multi-modal-ready SH 130 actually does accommodate anything other than single-occupant vehicles (see "What Will It Look Like?" p.20).
Even our more conservative suburbs feel it essential to get the SH 130 corridor into the legal hands of cities that can regulate its land use. Says Heiligenstein, "The county isn't going to be advocating any particular development on the roadway, because to us the issue is relieving congestion on I-35. But I assume Georgetown and Round Rock would annex along the road and I would encourage that. We should make the strongest play in terms of regulatory authority, which as it stands now would be the cities."
These annexations would give local cities the novel opportunity to actually plan development, and establish the requisite zoning, over a large area that's not yet completely built out. That is, if the cities hurry, which most have been loath to do until TTA gets its final alignment; under the new state rules, it takes three years to finalize annexation plans. Back when SH 130 was first contemplated, it was -- or at least seemed -- much farther east of the truly urbanized area than it is now, and cities envisioned having to strip-annex narrow tentacles of land to reach SH 130 and get its environs into planning range.
No more. As the aerial photos show, the SH 130 corridor through Williamson and Travis Counties is hardly open country. In Round Rock, the land between US 79 (the road to Taylor) and Louis Henna Blvd. -- which is destined to become part of SH 45, Austin's long-delayed Outer Loop -- is already filling up. (This is also where Kenney Fort and the MoKan Prairie are.) By the time SH 130 turns to concrete and becomes drivable through these two major interchanges in this hot market, it will have already spawned all the growth the area can hold.
Even more acute is the SH 130 crossing of the Colorado River at Hornsby Bend and subsequent intersection with SH 71 -- less than 1,000 feet east of FM 973. This puts SH 130 within walking distance of Bergstrom, and the jet-fueled boom in the southeast is likely to continue. Unless Travis County, or the city of Austin -- which is moving to annex Del Valle -- or the state get cracking on acquiring that right of way, SH 130 may end up being plowed through somebody's shiny new airport hotel or riverview office park.
While it's the counties' ultimate responsibility to acquire right of way for state highways, either city or county can acquire (with or without eminent domain), but only after an alignment is in place. That's what Round Rock has been waiting for since 1984, says Joe Vining. "We'd have been able to protect the SH 130 corridor and not be having this squabble. We'd already have a 400-foot-wide swath of land with signs saying 'Coming to a neighborhood near you, lots of big trucks and maybe a railroad too.' Now that the alignment might be done, and we might be able to acquire land, we have to buy a Luby's, an Appleby's, an Albertsons." So both the groaning traffic and the booming growth make it imperative that SH 130 be built the day before yesterday. That's how it got to be a toll road. If TTA can finance the project with revenue bonds -- borrowing against future toll collections -- it can get done a lot faster. How much faster, no one quite knows; TTA is working on the feasibility study for SH 130 as a candidate toll road even as we speak.
A toll road, of course, will be less popular than a free road. The traffic projections in the chart below assume that SH 130 will be free in 2020, which is possible -- though not a very safe bet -- even if it gets built as a toll road. Texas law requires that toll roads be converted to free highways as soon as their construction bonds are paid off. Of course, roads like the Dallas North Tollway have been around for a generation and still cost drivers change, but SH 130 may end up with more federal and state funding and thus have lower bonds. There's also wiggle room in the size of the road itself; the toll road may have fewer lanes and then get expanded once the bonds are paid off.
All of these variables make it hard to guesstimate the exact difference in traffic volume between an SH 130 toll road and a typical highway. The numbers tucked way in the back of the EIS -- firmly emblazoned "for comparison purposes only and subject to change" -- estimate that, if SH 130 is still charging toll in 2020, it may be carrying up to a third less traffic than the free-road projections indicate. This would obviously put more cars on other highways, though no one has published projections of how many more.
This means that the billion-dollar investment in SH 130, which would realize modest but significant effects if it were free, may produce only minimal congestion relief as long as it's a toll road. From the long-range view, that may be off point, since congestion relief is only one of SH 130's goals, and at some point the road would be free. But by that time, both driving habits and land use will be well-established -- toll or no toll, the corridor would still be built out -- and the effect of lifting the tolls on SH 130 would simply be to spawn gridlock on that road.
This is why the official line -- of local governments and of CAMPO -- is that we need both SH 130 and light rail. Indeed, the EIS traffic numbers assume, as does the current CAMPO plan, the existence of 54 miles of rail transit in the metro area by 2020. But it's no secret that at least some SH 130 proponents would like to redirect at least some of Capital Metro's money toward the highway; legislation to do just this, upon voter approval, was introduced by Round Rock state Rep. Mike Krusee in the last session. And the lately controversial proposal by some of SH 130's strongest proponents -- including TTA chair Pete Winstead -- to do a "peer review" of local transportation plans, decision-making, and funding allocations likewise raises the specter of redirecting Cap Met funds. As with robbing a bank, Cap Met is where the money is.
If light rail gets stood up by the voters in either May or November, then that pot of money would be, politically speaking, up for grabs. And if that money is combined with the proceeds from a toll road, SH 130 could be changing Metro Austin's life in as little as 10 years. But after 14 years of talking, no one is holding their breath for SH 130 to be done that rapidly -- indeed, for it to be done in time to really address the problem it aims to solve. "I'm planning to live another 25 years," says Joe Vining, "and I'm not sure I'm going to drive on it."