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Travis County to downgrade portion of Hamilton Pool Road project

Monday, February 18, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

Travis County has offered an olive branch to western Travis County – downgrading a portion of Hamilton Pool Road from four to two lanes between FM12 and the Blanco County line – but some residents there would like to see even more downsizing.


As Gene Lowenthal of Hamilton Pool Road Scenic Corridor Coalition told Travis County Commissioners at last week’s court meeting, the growth assumptions that drove the Capitol Area Metropolitan Planning Organization to designate Hamilton Pool Road a four-lane arterial were “highly speculative.” Planners were driven by the same irrational exuberance that created a highly speculative housing market, one that was about to be seriously curtailed.


“Now that reality has set in, we need to question whether widening a few county roads is the highest and best use of limited funding in Central Texas,” said Lowenthal, who also wants the county reconsider Bee Creek, Fitzhugh, Pace Bend Park and the remainder of Hamilton Pool Road for widening from two to four lanes.


Joe Gieselman said Travis County had tried to split the difference over the road widening with county residents. The project was not under consideration for construction until 2010 – and would require additional bond money – but a proposal by TxDOT to use $1.3 million to upgrade the one-lane bridge over the Pedernales River prompted the issue.


The road needs to accommodate the bridge, Gieselman said. In the CAMPO 2030 plan, Hamilton Pool Road would be expanded from two lanes to four lanes from the Blanco County line out to SH 71. Travis County would like to amend the CAMPO 2030 plan so that the road is improved, but downgraded, to two lanes from the Blanco County line to the FM 12, where the county anticipates some type of growth.


For local residents like Annie Borden, who provided slides of the “booming” metropolis of Cypress Mill, with its single gas station and Round Mountain, with its auction barn and 111 residents, the four-lane road makes no sense. She, like Lowenthal, would like to push to keep the road two lanes, especially through sensitive local lands.


The choice gets tricky from the county perspective. For one thing, it is still difficult to predict where and when growth might occur. Land in western Travis County is owned in thousand-acre parcels and not small lots. At any moment, a landowner could put a deal in play that could put 2,000 houses on the ground, Commissioner Gerald Daugherty pointed out. Daugherty and county staff went to the Hamilton Pool Road area last year to talk about the extension of Reimers Peacock Road.


An additional wrinkle is that an amendment to the CAMPO 2030 plan would be costly to the region. New federal regulations require CAMPO staff to provide new forecasts, revenue estimates and project costs for an amendment. In the past, CAMPO could add an amendment without considering the projected cost of the road. Now, if CAMPO votes to amend the Hamilton Pool Road project, it must rework the entire CAMPO 2030 plan, taking into consideration what each project will cost in the actual year of construction.


Hamilton Pool Road would no longer be estimated and fixed on 2003 dollars. It would be estimated and fixed on 2010 dollars, or the year the date of construction would begin.


While it is more accurate, it has also requires an inordinate amount of time for CAMPO staff, said interim executive director Maureen McCoy, who was at this week’s county meeting. CAMPO staff will do what it is instructed to do, but any amendment can only take time away from the CAMPO 2035 plan, which is currently being configured.


Where does that leave the county? Travis County could propose to delay its proposed amendment for another two years, until the time that CAMPO is prepared to rework its plan. That is still years before construction would begin on the road. The worst the scenario probably would be to purchase more right of way than necessary – with limited use – for the roadway. That could be used for future expansion, Daugherty said.


Residents argue that any development that occurs in the area would not be dense. It would be high-dollar homes on the rim of the Pedernales. Steve Manilla of the county’s TNR department, however, said that traffic estimates would indicate that widening the road to four lanes in the segment closest to Austin is probably necessitated by traffic counts, whether those counts are based on low density or high density.


Daugherty said all parties could probably agree – at the least – that four lanes were not needed out near the Blanco County line. Where the county might maintain a two-lane road – possibly leaning to more rather than less – would probably require further study.


Commissioners agreed to repost the item in three weeks.

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