'Y' Can't We Be Friends?
The Fix290 Coalition provides a test case for compatibility between highways and communities
In the overheated world of Central Texas toll road opposition, there are roughly two camps.
The first group, which grabs most of the headlines and defines much of the public debate, might be called the hectoring hatemongers. These are the people who see no tactic as too low in the battle to stop toll roads whether it's to accuse all transportation boards of being comprised of nothing but "crooks" and "sellouts," to recruit candidates whose sole qualification for office is a virulent opposition to tolls, or simply to slime and slander those hired or appointed to execute the toll plan. Even one-time allies who dare to deviate from the Toll Party line are not immune from such campaigns, as Council Member Brewster McCracken learned over the past year. These are the heyday hecklers, those who have turned up at meeting after meeting of the CAMPO Transportation Policy Board (which addresses policy matters) to hurl venomous insults at officials but rarely at a working meeting of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (charged with directing actual road plans). And because of that wide gap between public histrionics and effective advocacy, it's fairly easy for those same public officials to dismiss this first group as pointlessly obstructionist.
But as the broad Central Texas toll road plan has moved forward, a second camp of opponents, with deeper neighborhood and community networks, has also emerged. These might be called the community contrarians people from directly affected neighborhoods or transportation-oriented community organizations that may have some substantive and specific arguments for opposing a toll road project. The Fix290 Coalition is definitely in this latter category. Fix290, a loose umbrella group of Oak Hill residents, local environmentalists, and toll opponents, wants to see a kinder, gentler version of the elevated US 290/SH 71 interchange plan for one thing, they want to skip the elevation. And in a larger sense, they aren't focused simply on the highway they also want to preserve the Hill Country character of Oak Hill and therefore to integrate any highway projects into the ongoing neighborhood plan, currently under way.
And, yes, they do believe it can be done without tolls.
"I've been told that we're so far down the road that there's no way to change this road, that this has been on the books for 10 or 20 years," says the Coalition's Nina Butts, a local lobbyist who's representing Fix290. "I don't think that's a logical argument. Just because a plan has been in the works for a certain number of years does not mean it's a good plan. You have to look at the merits of that plan."
The current Texas Department of Transportation plan calls for a tolled, elevated eight-lane highway, flanked by six additional lanes of frontage roads the sprawling concession to the demand for "free" choices for drivers. The Fix290 Coalition made its first presentation of its own alternative a six-lane parkway, not unlike MoPac, through Oak Hill to CAMPO's Transportation Policy Board on Monday night (see sidebar, p.30). The presentation was listed as an "informational item" on the agenda, one of the first of its kind at CAMPO, and Butts admits it won't go any further than the "information only" stage unless Fix290 can somehow organize a vote in its favor, definitely an uphill climb. Meanwhile, they've been working feverishly with independent consultants to come up with possible configurations and potential traffic projections on their plan, which has yet to be formally presented to TxDOT.
District Engineer Bob Daigh struggles with the Fix290 proposal. A six-lane parkway with limited access contradicts many of the changes the agency made to accommodate neighborhood concerns about access to neighborhood streets and local businesses. A parkway, with no proper frontage roads, means the businesses that locals have fought to protect along US 290 would be wiped out. And the parkway plan's broader, implicit rejection of tolls undermines the funding of the entire project, at least as it has been defined thus far. "I applaud their concern and their interest in their community. We, too, are interested in working with them, to whatever degree possible, to provide a transportation facility that will work in a way that can meet all our goals," Daigh said. "We do, however, have a U.S. highway and a state highway and an underlying responsibility to provide a facility that will move people and goods efficiently through the area."
Confrontation vs. Collaboration
To understand how tough it is to redirect a TxDOT highway plan in any significant fashion, it's important to understand how a Texas road project actually gets funded. CAMPO is one of eight major metropolitan planning organizations in the state that funnels anticipated and actual federal and state funding to what local leaders perceive to be the most important mobility and transit projects in their regions. The first inkling of most major road projects comes in the 25-year planning horizon, currently codified for Central Texas in the CAMPO 2030 plan. That's followed by a 10-year horizon plan by TxDOT and the regional authorities. None of these broad, long-term plans are officially funded until the CAMPO Transportation Policy Board approves a specific three-year Transportation Improvement Plan, and the specific highway projects associated with it.
Given that lengthy time frame, it's no wonder that most community activists lack the endurance to actually push through the labyrinth of funding alternatives a discussion currently dominated nationally as well as locally by toll roads courtesy of the federal government. In the case of the 290/71 interchange, proposed improvements have been on the books for about 20 years. The closest CAMPO has gotten to funding the project when other more pressing needs weren't directing funds to other priorities was by funding the frontage roads, back in 2004, at a cost of $18.5 million. That's where the project funding stopped.
Only the advent of the regional toll plan, given momentum by Gov. Rick Perry and consequently by TxDOT, breathed new life into the 290/71 project. Many state highway projects (not only in Texas, but across the country) had been stymied by diminishing returns on gasoline taxes, and in recent years, state after state began considering tolls as a new revenue source, to fund both existing highway maintenance and the construction of new highway miles. As the Central Texas experience shows, the public has hardly embraced the state's toll campaign, but thus far the counterattack has succeeded only in tinkering with particular aspects of the overall toll plans. In the case of 290/71, that has meant proposing additional, "free" frontage lanes to an otherwise tolled highway a solution that results in even more concrete sprawl and promises even greater demolition of the surrounding neighborhood.
Histrionic attacks on elected officials are easy. Redirecting or amending a process as entrenched as transportation planning is hard. Rather than personalize its advocacy or demonize officials and highway planners, the Fix290 Coalition does not begin conversations in the manner of Sal Costello and the Austin Toll Party by calling CTRMA employees "a circle of parasites," or denouncing TxDOT engineers as secret agents of the New World Order. In fact, the Coalition members generally agree that TxDOT employees have been fairly cooperative albeit within the parameters of the agency's own plans, that still intend to erect grandly elevated expanses of concrete right through the heart of the Oak Hill neighborhood where the undeniably congested "Y" now stands as a central landmark.
Although the group is audibly unhappy with the state's current plans, members insist they're not going to sink to personal attacks. Even the often-litigious tactics of the Save Our Springs Alliance (one of the Coalition partners) are a bit too aggressive for some members, who hope instead that they can better achieve their goals by working in concert with officials and highway planners. David Richardson, who is spearheading the Oak Hill neighborhood planning efforts, says that any action CAMPO eventually takes will depend to some degree on the tone the Coalition uses to present its case to local leaders.
"Personally, I have felt like Sal and others like him approached things in a contentious way, and they end up stepping on themselves in the process," Richardson said. "Certainly, we're aware of the limitations of speaking for three minutes in front of the CAMPO board, but at the end the day, anything they do is going to be dependent upon the personal relationships with our individual officials. My approach has been to work with TxDOT and other elected officials in a collaborative way, and that goes back four or five years. When I come to them, I want them to know that I am trying to build a consensus out in the community, to bring them a broader point of view."
In some ways, the disagreement over the 290/71 interchange is a collision between the state's regional transportation goals invariably focused on speedily and efficiently moving the largest possible number of vehicles in the smallest amount of time and local values, which emphasize preserving the semirural character of the neighborhood and community. The renewed design of the Y interchange has come at a time, coincidentally, when Oak Hill is developing its city neighborhood plan, intended to physically articulate the community values: the Hill Country charm of its grove of 100-year-old oak trees, its quaint stone historic buildings, and the landscape of Williamson Creek, which runs roughly parallel to SH 71, north of the 290 interchange. Under the TxDOT plan, many of these small-town characteristics would disappear, including a lengthy section of Williamson Creek, which Fix290 says the transportation department would turn into a channelized ditch, 60 feet across.
But trees and creeks do not traditionally rate a high priority at TxDOT, which is, after all, in the business of building highways. As Daigh says, taking care of trees and creeks is usually something left to cities and counties. The whole concept of "context-sensitive design" or what even the Federal Highway Administration calls "thinking beyond the pavement" remains new to the agency, and even CSD has its own range of nuances. The engineers at TxDOT, for example, are perfectly happy to reconfigure particular highway exits to accommodate local subdivisions. Reconfiguring the design of a major road project for example, to de-elevate a 12-lane tollway (expandable to 14 lanes) into a six-lane parkway is another matter altogether.
Is There a Fix?
With the deployment of regional mobility authorities, however, the agency has had to redirect itself, from the traditional pattern of securing the funds to enact its designs into poured concrete to one of working with communities to buy into the concept, and continuing funding, of toll roads. In terms of its plans for Oak Hill, the agency's estimated traffic counts indicate that US 290 West could see up to 157,000 cars per day by 2030, a figure more comparable with MoPac beneath US 183 than a peaceful Hill Country road. As is always the case with highways, it's never clear how much projected development drives the highway, or vice versa. Nevertheless, Fix290 wants to see if they can find a middle ground, between a redesigned area roadway and TxDOT's superimposed regional superhighway.
Richardson says TxDOT's massive transportation goals are simply not compatible with the goals of the neighborhood plan: a better collector street system; a smarter placement of retail; the creation of infrastructure and transit that will increase the work-live density in the area as one of the city's prime residential nodes; and even the creation of an actual, walkable "downtown" Oak Hill. TxDOT's superhighway, which structurally mandates a high-speed thruway primarily serving outward-bound and commuter traffic, simply doesn't allow that.
More than a year ago, the city of Austin's Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department pledged to make transportation planning a more integral part of the neighborhood-planning process. That included negotiations with transit agencies. City planner Adam Smith says the city has made some progress with neighborhood/transit planning most specifically, with Capital Metro but still has a long way to go when it comes to working with TxDOT. "We've had meetings with TxDOT, but what it really comes down to is trying to get the buy-in from these other agencies into our plans," Smith said. "We may address what our desires are for a particular corridor with them, but TxDOT is not always as receptive as we would like for them to be. That's a problem."
Meanwhile, Fix290 remains determined to prove its plan can work for Oak Hill and has hired the traffic engineers who projected the Envision Central Texas plan, in the hopes of demonstrating that highways and neighborhoods are not incompatible. "We're going to let the engineers decide whether our plan is adequate or not adequate," Richardson said. "As far as I'm concerned, this is not a done deal yet. We recognize the need for this highway to come through this community, but we need to recognize that it's local traffic as well as interstate traffic that will be on this road."