From the air, the proposed routes of SH 130 look, well, pretty. And attendees at the Texas Turnpike Authority's public hearings on the SH 130 draft environmental impact statement -- held simultaneously Feb. 10 in Austin, Round Rock, and Seguin -- got plenty of time to look at just how pretty they are as they cooled their heels during an hour-and-a-half "open house" period (at least in Round Rock, where this reporter was) before the actual shouting began.
The video loops, shot from a helicopter flying (in the Round Rock segment) from US 290 north to Georgetown on each of SH 130's two potential alignments, resembled nothing so much as the relaxation movies they play before takeoff on newer airplanes. All that was missing was the swirly music and sound of running water. One expected the TTA brass to stand up and demonstrate how the four-inch-thick SH 130 EIS draft could be used as a flotation device.
But no one was very relaxed in Round Rock, where TTA's preferred "western alignment" -- or, as the locals call it, the "Central Round Rock" route -- has sparked a prairie fire of protest from the community. As the SH 130 saga has lumbered along, one can only assume that the Round Rock revolt was unexpected by TTA. Folks in East Austin and Travis County have fought against the (separate) western alignment in their back yards for years -- the east-or-west-of-Decker-Lake issue -- and the SH 130 EIS takes pains (and pages) to explain why a route grazing the Eastside does not violate the civil rights of the poor people of color who make up most of the population there.
But nothing in the EIS addresses the concerns of Round Rockers who see the old MoKan railroad right of way used by TTA's preferred route -- which was a long way to the east of town when the state bought it, years ago, for the highway we now call SH 130 -- being further straddled every day by the Rock's explosive eastern growth. Both the city and its citizens prefer TTA's "eastern" alignment, which basically runs between Round Rock and Hutto. "We can see from Austin's experience what a highway in the middle of town does," said Round Rock Mayor Bob Stluka. "The eastern alignment unites (Round Rock and Hutto); the western alignment divides."
Round Rock's pain was greatly increased when it came out that TTA's initial numbers, which said the western route would carry about 40,000 more cars a day and would cost only a little more than an eastern alignment, turned out to be way off on both counts. "The problem isn't just that the people of Round Rock want an eastern alignment," said state Rep. Mike Krusee of Round Rock, who has displayed both scruples and guts on SH 130 that many observers thought he didn't have. "The problem is that they feel that they're being lied to ... and that the process is rigged."
Thus the stage was set for a curious public event; the hearing (mandated by federal law) was seemingly conceived by TTA as an educational experience for noncommitted citizens, but most of the thousand or so in attendance were already quite committed, organized, and armed against the turnpike authority. Among them were not only neighborhoods and elected officials like Stluka, Krusee, and state Sen. Steve Ogden (R-Bryan) -- all of whom came out unequivocally for an eastern route -- but also the parishioners of Palm Valley Lutheran Church, the oldest church in Williamson County and one of Central Texas' most valuable landmarks, which lies a few hundred feet from the western route.
Actually, to call this thing a "hearing" is a misnomer, since there was nobody to actually hear the crowd, at least directly. The TTA reps and consultants gave introductory presentations, rehearsing -- and often quoting directly -- the content of the EIS, but did not answer questions, so the hordes of speakers were effectively talking to a wall. (The TTA also stationed court reporters to take testimony from people who didn't want to vent in front of their neighbors, and is accepting written comments into the hearing record until Feb. 22.) "We will seriously consider all the input we receive," said TTA director Philip Russell.
It'll be a couple of months before we see how seriously TTA considers the quite serious opposition to their preferred route from the people who are supposed to be driving on it. The authority aims to deliver a final EIS, focusing in more detail on whatever route it chooses, to the Federal Highway Administration by early summer. Then, the feds will issue a "record of decision" -- probably by year's end -- that would clear SH 130's route of any regulatory obstacles. Legal and financial burdens are another matter -- funding for SH 130 is still an open question, even if it is a toll road, and several constituencies (environmental justice advocates and farmland preservationists, most notably) have threatened litigation that could deep-six the whole project, whatever its route.