CAMPO: Whose Ox Gets Soothed?

Fix290's proposal gets praised at Tuesday's meeting for its cooperative approach

"Soothing" is hardly the first word Central Texas officials utter when they hear of opposition to a toll project, but that's just how Austin Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos described the Fix290 Coalition presentation at Monday's CAMPO meeting: "soothing." The Coalition took a new tack in considering the US 290/SH 71 toll road project: try to create an alternative that accomplishes many of the same goals as the state toll project but with a smaller footprint and less concrete. The public result was in stark contrast to many of the recent toll road complaint sessions, which generally have focused on threats to remove board members rather than the merits of alternatives to particular projects.

"It was just nice for a change. Soothing," a relieved Barrientos said at the end of the Fix290 presentation at Monday night's meeting.

The Fix290 proposal still allows an elevated 290/71 interchange, but it drops to a six-lane parkway through the Oak Hill area with crossovers at major intersections. Spokeswoman Carol Cespedes said the Fix290 group was not firm on whether the intersections should go above or below grade at the parkway. That was a decision, she said, TxDOT would have to make.

The alternative drew a favorable response from most of the CAMPO members, especially Austin officials. Brewster McCracken spoke of the impressive range of community support. State Rep. Elliott Naishtat approved of the project's relatively minimal impact on the aquifer. Even TxDOT District Engineer Bob Daigh praised the group for its cooperative spirit.

But the solution is not without its challenges, financial and political. Pulling the 290/71 project off the table takes another piece of the toll house of cards – each project puts state funding into the mix, and any deletion of toll income narrows the financial return in the early years, when the region is looking for some funding cushion for future projects.

TxDOT received Fix290's detailed plan only last week and is still assessing its feasibility. Off the cuff, District Engineer Bob Daigh estimated the frontage design needed for a parkway would require putting up another $30 million toward right-of-way acquisition, and buying out most of the businesses that would no longer have direct access to a limited-access parkway. He suggested the new design also would require a new environmental study, which could add another three years to an already lengthy timeline.

More daunting politically was the opposition of Eastside state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, who said she appreciated the work of Oak Hill residents but found it more than a little disturbing that the one toll road remaining on the west side of the county could be removed from the overall regional plan. That would mean that every toll road left in the plan would tax primarily Eastside drivers – potentially a violation of the environmental justice requirements under federal law. The west side would get its highways – and the Eastside would get to pay for them.

"Somewhere we are amiss in our thinking and our planning," Dukes said. "If we continue to plan in the way that we do – that the Eastside is overburdened by negative impacts and not by positive ones – then Title VI is going to end up shutting down any road construction in this area."

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  • More of the Story

  • 'Y' Can't We Be Friends?

    The Fix290 Coalition provides a test case for highway and community compatibility

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