Naked City

Eastward Ho?

Pete Winstead
Pete Winstead (Photo By John Anderson)

Go east, young town, and grow up with SH 130. Thus spake the solons of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization at their February meeting, as they made their official contribution to the SH 130 environmental-impact study process, and unanimously endorsed an eastern alignment for the controversial, long-debated highway project.

The meeting was held in the Senate Chamber at the Capitol, with the 21 local and state officials who compose the CAMPO board on the floor and hundreds of citizens watching from the gallery above. These theatrical surroundings obscured the fact that the outcome of the vote was probably a foregone conclusion, since thousands of Central Texans, as well as the cities of Austin and Round Rock and the Travis County commissioners, had already made plain their opposition to the western alignment. (Republican Rep. Mike Krusee of Round Rock made the motion to go east, but four diehard Democrats jostled to get credit for the second.)

But that didn't stop hundreds of SH 130 backers, recruited from the Chamber of Commerce, Real Estate Council of Austin (chaired by Pete Winstead, who also chairs the Texas Turnpike Authority, which would build SH 130), and other interests of like mind from trying to persuade CAMPO that voting to express a preference on the alignment would slow down the much-needed project. Of course, the TTA has already committed its preference to a western alignment, even though the eastern route would be cheaper and probably quicker to build, so the logic of the Chamber position is a little fuzzy.

Playing Judy to the Chamber's Punch, the committed core of local transportation advocates -- many of whom, curiously, had to wait until the very end of the evening to speak because the CAMPO staff lost their page of the sign-up list -- tried to outline the case for not building SH 130 at all, noting that its power to relieve congestion on I-35 (by only 5-8% in downtown Austin, according to the TTA's own analysis) is not worth the $1 billion cost. But this position is likely futile -- it's a sure bet that local policy types want SH130 to be built. The issue is where.

But does CAMPO's opinion matter here? Technically, no; the decision on an alignment is made by TTA and the Federal Highway Administration. But next month, CAMPO has to vote whether to include SH 130 in its short-term transportation improvement plan, which would allow it to start getting state and federal funding and would probably immunize the project in case Austin goes into air-quality non-attainment. The MPO can, at that time, take an official stand that only an eastern alignment will get funded and built, though that decision, unlike the alignment decision of the FHWA, would always be open to change.

Even if CAMPO caves to the pressure of the Chamber et. al, and puts SH 130 on the books without insisting on an eastern alignment, it appears likely that a western route will include a bypass through the courthouse. Several speakers, including City Council candidate and environmental-justice advocate Raul Alvarez, disputed the TTA finding that a western route -- which would go closer to, and have more impact on, East Austin neighborhoods -- did not violate federal civil rights law. Other legal action could be coming on behalf of several historic sites -- including Palm Valley Lutheran Church -- that lie along TTA's preferred western route. And farmland-preservation advocates claim that the entire TTA environmental-impact process is flawed and needs to be thrown out.

The SH 130 portion of the CAMPO program was delayed for several hours as the board finally, after months of wrangling, approved an independent "peer review" of local transportation planning. This idea -- backed, not coincidentally, by the same people, including Winstead, who are most behind SH 130 -- has been severely downsized since first bubbling up last fall. Back then, peer-review backers wanted a consultant to actually prioritize our transportation projects -- and, probably, tell the community that we must build SH 130 before a light rail system.

Now, the consultant (yet to be hired) will only review the data local transportation planners are using to forecast growth and transport needs; a second project, in the indefinite future, will tell CAMPO and local policymakers what to do with those findings. This was enough to turn Austin and Travis County members of the CAMPO board, who back in December helped shoot down peer review, into advocates for the project.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, SH130, Mike Krusee, Chamber of Commerce, Real Estate Council of Austin, Pete Winstead, Texas Turnpike Authority, FederalHighway Administration, Raul Alvarez

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