The Highway to 2040

CAMPO Board approves regional trans plan

Conceptual drawing of the proposed MoPac South expansions approaching Cesar Chavez, complete with flyover
Conceptual drawing of the proposed MoPac South expansions approaching Cesar Chavez, complete with flyover

After a couple of hours of what at times seemed like a freshman seminar in medieval linguistics, late Monday evening the 20-member Transportation Policy Board of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (which does transportation planning for the five Central Texas counties) voted to approve the final draft of its 2040 Regional Transportation Plan, without including a formal amendment requested by Austin's City Council. Yet when the dust settled, it appeared that the board had awkwardly allowed in via the bureaucratic back door the rhetorical adjustment it had mightily resisted admitting via the front lobby.

Although the Plan includes some 400 potential road projects proposed for Central Texas over the next 25 years – and is subject to interim amendments as well as mandated five-year rewrites – the arguments Monday primarily concerned a few words describing a single project: the proposed MoPac South expansion, and whether it could include four or perhaps two managed toll lanes heading toward Downtown Austin. The Central Texas Regional Mobility Auth­­ority (a separate transportation agency for Williamson and Travis counties) had initially recommended four toll lanes (two in each direction); Council had been resisting the larger project, and especially its corollary double-decker overpass proposed for the interchange leading to Cesar Chavez.

After lengthy public testimony last week at its May 7 meeting, Council had voted to ask the TPB to add a few words to the MoPac description – "up to and including four lanes" – language intended essentially to confirm downward flexibility for planners. The change – moved formally by TPB members Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Ann Kitchen (CMs Delia Garza and Sheri Gallo are also on the board) – seemed innocuous, and even opponents conceded it was probably not "substantive." But other members – notably Precinct 3 Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugh­erty – worried aloud that the Federal Highway Administration, which approves these plans, would balk at the change or even "freeze" local funding until the matter was resolved. When the FHWA official on hand, José Campos, said he could not answer definitively without first consulting his colleagues, most members apparently got cold feet, and Adler withdrew his motion, after receiving assurances that it could be reintroduced later after consultation with FHWA.

After straining mightily and refusing to swallow that gnat, a few minutes later the board voted to include advisory language proposed by Kitchen, that "all options" (two-lane, four-lane, even no-build) be studied before moving forward on the MoPac South project. Board members responded that Kitchen's options are already part of the Plan, and only one member voted against the addition – which was apparently considered non-substantive because (unlike Adler's amendment) it would be only "a footnote" to the project description.

Meanwhile, larger potential questions remained unaddressed. As the evening began, public witnesses representing the Real Estate Council of Austin and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce had praised the overall Plan, but others were much less enthusiastic. Roger Baker told the board the toll-based funding estimates are far too optimistic and would likely leave the public liable for heavy debts. Bill Bunch of Save Our Springs Alliance said the MoPac project is in fact a "MoPac/45 SW toll project," designed incrementally to create a western I-35 bypass; he called it unaffordable, not transparent to the public, and (because it's being presented piecemeal) "patently deceptive."

Footnote notwithstanding, CAMPO appears determined eventually to expand MoPac South, although CTRMA Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein seemed to soften a bit on the prospective details in a colloquy with Precinct 2 Commissioner Brigid Shea, arguing only that a four-lane expansion would better enable a Downtown interchange. Meanwhile, Daugherty acknowledged that many of his Southwest constituents have objected to the double-decker flyover and its potential effects on Lady Bird Lake, Zilker Park, and environs, and indicated that while he would not retreat on the need for "added capacity" on MoPac, he could be persuaded against the flyover. (Neither he nor anybody else contemplated aloud what will happen when all those additional vehicles arrive at Cesar Chavez – already at full capacity – but that's Austin's problem, not the CTRMA's.)

On the Plan approval vote itself, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt was the sole abstention (there were no nays), saying that she doesn't believe the Plan as it stands is sufficiently forward-thinking on the need for regional mass transit or even recognizing that road projects alone simply cannot accommodate projected regional growth. She noted that even should every single Plan project be completed as proposed, road congestion will still worsen, just not as quickly. "We can't do this," she concluded, "with people in cars by themselves." Afterward, she said that while she didn't want to "throw the Plan under the bus" by voting against it, she thinks it still needs a great deal of work and a better focus on multimodal solutions. "It's all over the map right now," she said. "It'll get better."

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