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Rocky road ahead for toll road plan

Tuesday, May 11, 2004 by

Large contingent from SW Austin rejects toll for William Cannon at MoPac overpass

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority and the Texas Department of Transportation have a long road ahead of them if they intend to win overall community support for the region’s proposed $2.2 billion toll road plan.

CTRMA recently started holding meetings with the community on the plan, scheduling four to five a week. Last week residents in southwestern Travis County got a chance to see the plan and make public comments on Commissioner Gerald Daugherty’s home turf in Circle C. Last night the authority put in a second appearance before the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s (CAMPO) Transportation Policy Board.

Board members include both the author of the recent transportation omnibus bill, Rep. Mike Krusee (R-Round Rock), as well as Daugherty, a longtime anti-rail, pro-road advocate. Rep. Terry Keel (R-Austin), also a board member, had clearly gotten the message from his Southwest Austin constituents that the tolling of the William Cannon overpass at Loop 1 was unpopular. Add a variety of city, county, and small-city representatives who all have different vested interests in the toll road plan, and you have a complex set of issues that may take months to resolve.

The biggest argument in favor of the toll road plan was the estimated $1.6 billion the region would receive in available funding and manpower if CTRMA steps forward with a plan. Roger Baker, a frequent speaker at CAMPO board meetings, argued that the apparent need to rush to a decision was artificial and said that the prime supporters of the toll road plan were the real estate community and those who would benefit from road contracts. His statement drew widespread applause from the audience.

The biggest contingent among the several hundred who attended last night’s CAMPO meeting were those who opposed the inclusion of the William Cannon overpass in the toll road plan. Residents lined up to oppose the project’s inclusion, arguing that, as taxpayers, they would pay twice for a road project that is already funded.

Westcreek Homeowners Association President Kim Sherman said it was unconscionable that the CAMPO board would consider including the overpass in the toll road plan. William Cannon, US 290, and Loop 1 border roughly a thousand homes in Westcreek.

“Our belief is that because the toll road will be so short, most people will remain on the frontage road,” said Sherman, who added that tolling would cause added problems for Westcreek. “We expect significant cut-through traffic, especially in the evenings, because they don’t want to pay a toll on a one-mile stretch of road.”

Keel laid out the “already paid” argument to the full board before the testimony even started. Daugherty challenged the endorsement of the road plan by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and the Real Estate Council of Austin, questioning whether the entities’ full membership had been polled on the issue. Both the chamber and RECA offered support for the plan by board member resolution, and public relations consultant Elizabeth Christian told Daugherty the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce has been on record since 1987 in favor of a toll road plan if it would speed up the process of paving more roads in Austin. Christian serves as the chamber’s vice chair for Regional Transportation & Development.

Keel said the CTRMA was very clever to say that only additional capacity would be tolled under the plan.

“If your proposal is to toll lanes that are not under construction and have not been funded, I’m for you building them,” Keel said. “I would love to support this plan, but I can’t support this plan if you take this ‘all or nothing’ approach. You’re proposing taking a mile stretch in southwest Travis County that is already paid for and to pay a toll for what will be a gate into and out of the community.”

Attorney Pete Winstead, former chair of the Texas Turnpike Authority, told the board that no one liked toll roads, but toll roads appeared to be the only way to address the mobility crisis. One argument put forward by Citizens for Mobility is that TxDOT commissioners have directed that all roads, even those under construction, be studied as possible tollways. Using the toll road model would significantly leverage available state dollars, Winstead said.

“Let me say that no one likes the toll road model,” Winstead acknowledged during his speech to the board. “I think the issue tonight is not just the funding, but the congestion crisis that has been facing Austin for so many years.”

Others were concerned with the specifics that would be addressed during the design of the project, such as how bicycles would be accommodated on the Loop 360 bridge and details about entrance and exit ramps. Some, like Dick Kallerman of the Sierra Club, expressed concern about the focus on outlying areas, rather than improving inner-city mobility. Kallerman suggested the board delay a vote on the plan for six months in order to consider all aspects of a multi-modal plan, including the result of a likely commuter rail vote.

Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos (D-Austin), CTRMA chair, has delayed a vote on the plan at least until July. More testimony will be taken next month. Over a hundred citizens signed up to speak about the toll road plan at last night’s meeting.

Board recommends Robinson Ranch conditions

Environmental panel asks for open space restrictions, stormwater treatment for roads

After thorough review by a subcommittee, the Environmental Board has offered its conditional approval of the city’s proposal to annex more than 6,000 acres of Robinson Ranch. The board suggested 13 conditions along with its endorsement governing areas from storm water treatment to landscaping.

The primary focus of discussion at the board’s first meeting on the annexation covered one portion of a proposed agreement between the city and the Robinson family. That provision would give extra protection to certain recharge features for the northern Edwards Aquifer in exchange for eliminating protection for smaller, less significant features. In a statement accompanying the board’s 13-point plan, members outlined the reasons they thought that trade-off to be appropriate. “The negative effects . . . will be at least partially offset by prohibition of development in the transition zones of major waterways, and the setbacks from small waterways (drainage areas 32 acres or more), which would not be protected under the current code,” the board wrote. “There is also the expectation that many of the unprotected karst features can be addressed at the development stage by modification of drainage and/or strategic location of structures. The board, of course, encourages this practice to the maximum extent possible.”

The board’s recommendation sheet calls for restrictions on recreation in open spaces areas, dedicating those open spaces as public parkland wherever appropriate and limiting utility easements in open spaces. The board also wants commercial development within the annexed area to use an integrated pest management system and for them to comply with the city’s “Grow Green” program. “We started to say native plants, and then we modified that to at least be in accordance with the City of Austin’s Grow Green program which does permit some adaptive plants,” said Board Chair Lee Leffingwell. “That should be incorporated into commercial development.”

Other itemized recommendations include providing stormwater treatment for all roads, prohibiting point-source pollution discharge within water quality transition zones and critical water quality zones and prohibiting the use of coal tar-based parking lot sealants if that provision is ever written into the city’s Land Development Code.

A few board members wanted to make sure that those conditions would not cause the city to scrap the deal with the Robinson family for annexing the land. “Does this in any way jeopardize the city’s ability to successfully enter into the agreement? I think we’re going to be better off protecting this land than if the deal doesn’t go through and somebody else gets it,” said Board Member David Anderson. Assistant City Attorney David Lloyd reminded board members that their conditions were not ultimately binding on the city, but that their recommendations would certainly be taken into account during the negotiation process. That assurance seemed to satisfy the board.

“If this were an ordinary development process, I would want to get some indication of agreement with the applicant,” said Leffingwell. But he acknowledged that the large amount of land being annexed and the long-term nature of the agreement with the landowner made this a special case. “I do realize, and I think most members of this board realize, that this is a project that is very important. The City of Austin has the highest standards for development for protecting the environment of any governmental entity in this area,” he said. “I think we’re better off with the city doing this than defaulting to another governmental entity, even though it’s not exactly like we would want it.”

The final vote to endorse the proposal was 6-0. The City Council held a public hearing on the proposed annexation last week and has another one scheduled for this week. A final vote on the proposal would likely occur next month.

Anti-proposition 1 group files . . . Terrell Blodgett, the LBJ School professor emeritus, who opposes the firefighters effort to gain collective bargaining, made good on his pledge to form a political action committee. Although the paperwork came in on Thursday, the group has not yet held a news conference or otherwise gotten any publicity for their position. Meanwhile the firefighters’ union has filled mailboxes and phone answering machines in an effort to get out the voters they believe would be favorable to their cause. Election Day is Saturday and today is the final day of early voting . . . One precinct location changes .. . The office of County Clerk Dana de Beauvoir sent a notice yesterday that Precinct 254, previously combined with another precinct, would have its own polling place this time around. The new voting location is Davis Elementary School, 5214 Duval Rd . . . Early vote totals. . . As of last night, 13,897of Travis County’s 583,823 registered voters had cast ballots on the question of whether Travis County should have a hospital district and various other measures. The firefighters’ referendum appears only on City of Austin precinct ballots. AISD School Board incumbent Doyle Valdez is facing perennial candidate Jennifer Gale in the only contested district race. There are three ACC positions to be filled. Monday’s voting was the heaviest so far, with 1,954 ballots cast. Three mobile polling locations will be set up at Town Lake Center, the Texas Department of Health and the Sam Houston State Office Building today, the final day of early voting . . . Metro to announce outreach effort . . . Capital Metro will hold a press conference at noon today to announce a six-month community outreach effort to gain citizen input on a long-range transit system vision for the region. The proposed 25-year transit plan would combine new rail and bus solutions and expand existing bus services. Fred Gilliam, President and CEO will join Board Member John Treviño at the podium at Capital Metro’s HQ, 2910 E. 5th Street. Austin area traffic is expected to more than double over the next 20 years . . . RMMA advisors to hear city presentation tonight . . . The commission had said last month that they would not meet until May 18, but the City Council asked for input from the RMMA Implementation Committee on the question of leasing or selling the former airport property. The meeting is set for 6pm at Waller Creek Center. There will be a hearing at 6pm on this matter at Thursday’s Council meeting . . . Planning Commission meeting. . . The commission, as usual, will meet in Room 325 of One Texas Center at 6pm . . . Democrats to celebrate walkout . . . Wednesday marks the 25th anniversary of the Killer Bees, 12 Democratic State Senators who hid out in a garage apartment to break the Senate quorum in 1979. They won their battle against a plan to separate the presidential primary from the regular primary. Former Gov. John Connally was seeking the presidential nomination as a Republican. The theory was that many Democrats, given the chance, would vote for Connally in a separate primary. That never happened. Democrats are also honoring the Killer D’s at the party, from 5-7pm Wednesday at Scholz Garten, 1607 San Jacinto.

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