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Regional Mobility Authoritie s

Friday, June 21, 2002 by

Travis County road chief expresses optimism

A looser interpretation of rules for Regional Mobility Authorities (RMAs) has led Travis County staff to a far more optimistic outlook on their future viability.

RMAs were created by the Legislature last session to build, operate and maintain toll projects within various areas of the state. This is the second set of rules the Texas Transportation Commission has sent out for comment.

Williamson County Judge John Doerfler, in a recent joint Commissioners Court meeting, said the first set of rules was so restrictive as to make the RMAs almost impossible to complete.

During that meeting, county staff expressed little hope the rules would improve with further input, but a new draft of the rules appear to be far better than county officials had anticipated. The 44-page draft, which has yet to be released to the public, has been circulating among county officials.

Joe Gieselman, executive director of Travis County’s Transportation and Natural Resources Department, said the new rules are far less stringent than the original draft. The first draft, Gieselman said, was really no more than an overlay of many of the Texas Department of Transportation’s specifications and standards on the new RMAs.

One of the most important changes was dropping the requirement that TxDOT’s departmental manuals and standards govern roadway designs and other engineering decisions. The previous set of rules required the RMA to send an exhaustive amount of preliminary design information to the department for review and approval of which the following is only one small example:

Hydraulic and hydrologic studies and reports used to size bridges and culverts shall be submitted and include specifications for the basis of design and the design coefficients, rainfall intensities, drainage area sizes, and calculated flow quantities for each drainage structure and, when applicable, for each inlet and storm sewer);

TxDOT also wanted to have the final say on any construction contract changes before the RMA could begin the revised construction work.

In essence, RMAs were being treated as an extension of the existing TxDOT, with little room for the counties to leave their own mark on the agencies or tailor those authorities to meet the needs of the state’s individual regions.

“Everything was so wired down that everything was pretty much predicated on what these RMAs would be doing,” Gieselman said. “Some of those rules might happen anyway, but what they’ve done is deferred those types of decisions to the moment they create the RMA. Then, they’ll decide what’s appropriate and what’s not.”

That might give counties a better chance to barter with TxDOT on important variances. It’s likely to take another session before RMAs have a chance to get off the ground. Along with the aspects of the rules that have yet to be codified, lawmakers also forgot to give RMAs the authority to issue revenue bonds to pay for transportation projects.

Both Travis and Williamson counties have expressed interest in the RMAs, and the two counties have been in talks over projects of mutual interest such as State Highway 130 and State Highway 45. Adding Hays County to the mix might make sense, Gieselman said, but Travis County has had far fewer conversations with its neighbor to the south.

The first likely candidate for a regional transportation authority would be US 183A, which would extend from the existing US 183 across Cedar Park and Leander and tie into SH 45 and FM 1431. While much there has been much talk about the project, Gieselman warns that it’s only talk until the counties do serious financial projections. The creation of RMAs is going to be driven by the feasibility of projections, he said.

“We’re still a ways away from an RMA,” Gieselman said. “All of these things have to be feasible. Creating an RMA doesn’t necessarily do anything unless the project is feasible to do, and that’s based on how much toll revenue a project is going to create.”

Even toll projects considered a strong bet for the region—SH 45 and SH 130—have required a strong infusion of local dollars for right-of-way acquisition. And while the RMAs are expected to run on toll revenues, most major transportation projects are going to require some infusion of non-toll revenue, either from local or state government, Gieselman said.

“Just because there has been talk of RMAs doesn’t mean it’s going to happen,” Gieselman said. “Before you have an RMA, you have to make a project work—travel forecasts and revenue generated from tolls—and unless you can make the numbers work, the RMA is not going to work.”

The Texas Transportation Commission has not set a deadline for adopting the RMA rules. Once the rules are adopted, they will be forwarded to the Legislature.

Wynn wants SH 130 to include

Trails, parkland, recreation

Opinion by Will Wynn and Charles Wender

With the upcoming award of a construction contract on State Highway 130 and recent voter approvals of more than $100 million in bonds for greenspace acquisition in the Austin-San Antonio Corridor, state and local officials should work towards linking the voters’ clear enthusiasm for more parkland with their equally strong support for new transportation solutions.

Now that SH 130 is well on its way to becoming a reality, now is the time for officials to give some thought to what this vital transportation artery will look like, not just once it is built, but 25 to 30 years in the future. One thing that most would agree upon is that it should not become another Interstate 35—a workhorse in terms of commuter and truck traffic—but about as unlovely a stretch of highway as any in the country.

The beauty and fragility of the Central Texas landscape—a gift we should preserve for future generations—cries out for something more pleasant and imaginative than another dull stretch of concrete six-lanes wide, lined with non-descript strip malls, billboards, and junkyards. We would propose that planners envision and build SH 130 as a scenic parkway system of associated trails, parks, and recreational areas, linking the Guadalupe and Colorado River basins from Seguin to Bastrop and beyond.

There are, we believe, sound economic, transportation, and lifestyle arguments to be made for developing SH 130 as a mixed corridor of trails, rails, and roadways. Excellent examples of such road and parkway combinations, in urban and suburban settings, exist elsewhere in the country, such as the George Washington Parkway in Northern Virginia or the Rock Creek Parkway in Washington, D.C. Surely Central Texans deserve something at least as good.

If a comprehensive planning effort were initiated now—as right-of-way is being acquired—entities such as the Lower Colorado River Authority and the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority could cooperatively begin developing trails, pocket parks, and recreational areas adjacent to, inside, and all along the route. Corridors could also be established to link existing state, city, and county parks nearby using floodplain, endangered species set-asides, or watershed protection zones inappropriate for commercial development.

Due to some remarkable legislative foresight, the route of SH 130 has already been approved by the state as a potential linear tax increment-financing district, or “TIF.” A TIF facilitates the use of property taxes for specific site investments. Those areas along the route that are deemed appropriate for commercial development (and there will, of course, be many) could use the TIF—in addition to user fees—to help finance the construction and operation of the parks, recreational areas, and trails.

Other opportunities along this route might also be explored, such as the development of the proposed Lake Lockhart—a 35,000-acre recreational lake that might also supply drinking water to nearby communities. With the urban cores of Austin-San Antonio projected to double in population by 2020, the area to the east of IH-35 could well become a recreational destination for cities which, by then, will be sorely lacking in accessible greenspace. By creating an inter-connected series of parks and trails along the SH 130 route, this area might well develop as a tourist attraction far beyond its current, well-deserved status within the ‘Holy Trinity of Barbecue.’

The fact is, Caldwell and Guadalupe Counties do not have the financial resources to fund their portions of SH 130 right of way—to ignore this is merely delaying progress on the project’s southern extension. Moreover, construction of the roadway as a toll facility will probably inhibit at least some economic development typically associated with similar highways. Thus trying to take advantage of other financial opportunities related to the road only makes good sense. By envisioning the project as a potential combination of trails, parks, and transportation corridors, local governments could use the TIF to recapture the value-added to adjacent real estate, and the public would stand to gain through the lifestyle and visual benefits of a parks system linking two of the area’s finest natural resources, the Guadalupe and Colorado River basins.

The state is studying State Highway 130 as a potential ‘super-corridor’ for high-speed rail, freight rail, and pipelines reaching from Mexico to the Oklahoma border. Let’s extend that vision still further to incorporate the aesthetic and environmental values that make this area so attractive to those who live here, and just as importantly, to those who we know are on the way. And one more thing: let’s name SH 130 Scenic Parkway after a deserving individual; any suggestions?

Council Member Will Wynn is the Austin chair and Charles Martin Wender is the San Antonio co-chair for the Greater Austin-San Antonio Corridor Council.

Thursday,.

Rose has a new job . . . David Peterson, general manager of the Bluebonnet Electric Co-Op, has been relieved of his duties and Mark Rose, former general manager of the LCRA, has taken the job on an interim basis. Peterson is still employed by the Giddings-based utility, since his contract does not expire until the end of the year. However, neither he nor Rose could be reached for comment yesterday. Rose left the LCRA about two and a half years ago to join Public Strategies, Inc., but left the firm last year. Bluebonnet serves all or part of 14 Central Texas counties, including Bastrop, where Rose resides. He served as a member of the Austin City Council from 1983 to 1987 . . . Yes, we are congested . . . The 2002 Urban Mobility Report from the Texas Transportation Institute shows that Austin residents are wasting more time in traffic than residents of any other mid-sized city. The results don’t come as a surprise to Austan Librach, Director of the city’s Transportation Planning & Sustainability Department. “They’ve confirmed that as a city gets larger, its congestion gets worse,” he said. While the authors of the report support road expansion to slow the increase of congestion, they also point out that roads alone won’t solve the problem. They specifically encourage guiding land use patterns to reduce the use of private vehicles. Austin’s Smart Growth policy, which encourages mixed-use development, has similar goals. “We’ve spent a lot of our effort on reducing demand for more roads,” Librach said, “not only through land use and transportation, but by making areas more pedestrian and bicycle-friendly” . . . Watson among the converted . . . Texas Attorney General candidate Kirk Watson was in his element last night at a mostly-female fundraiser at the Four Seasons. Sarah Weddington, the attorney who won the battle for abortion rights in Roe v. Wade 30 years ago, introduced Watson. He told the gathering his opponent, Republican Greg Abbott, opposes abortion even in cases of incest and rape and to save the life of the mother. Watson is a strong supporter of reproductive rights. He told the enthusiastic group to make a point of contacting all their women friends to let them know his position, as well as Abbott’s . . . Planning Commission working on Saturday . . . The Planning Commission is holding a work session beginning at 9am Saturday. Among the items on the agenda are an overview of departmental structure and organization, work plan goals and a roundtable discussion of the neighborhood planning process. A number of city staff members will be on hand for questions and presentations. The following Saturday, the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department will be working again, meeting with members of the East MLK and Southeast neighborhood planning areas.

© 2002 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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