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Travis County wants to build roadway near Formula 1 racetrack

Wednesday, August 1, 2012 by Michael Kanin

Travis County officials want to construct another segment of roadway near the racetrack under construction for Austin’s Formula 1 U.S. Grand Prix race. The current cost estimate on the road is $48.7 million but could eventually be more than that.


The potential four-lane divided stretch of Elroy Road would run from FM 812, just south of the Circuit of the Americas track, north to SH 71.Travis officials are in the preliminary steps of the effort, which would not be completed in time for this year’s Formula 1 race weekend Nov. 16 to 18.


In trying to secure federal funding for at least a portion of the project, Travis County officials want to move a segment of the road up a notch to the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s (CAMPO’s) list of roads deemed “Financially Constrained Arterial,” making it a more important project than it is now. It is currently sitting on a lower priority category known as the “Illustrative Arterial” projects list.


Another portion of the planned road, a segment from Pearce Lane to SH 71, is an entirely new idea. All told the stretch will be in the neighborhood of five miles.


Travis County Commissioners voted Tuesday to move the Elroy Road project – also known as Maha Loop – from the illustrative to the financially constrained list. However, five-member Commissioners Court did so without two commissioners: Sarah Eckhardt and Karen Huber were both off the dais for the day. Eckhardt and Huber are active in CAMPO and Huber, in particular, has spoken against using county funds for efforts associated with the Formula 1 race.


The fast-approaching Formula 1 race is expected to draw 120,000 spectators and snarl traffic around a still-largely undeveloped area in southeast Travis County.


CAMPO’s illustrative list offers regional planners a look at all roads that area jurisdictions would like to preserve rights of way on — regardless of whether the projects are fully ready for construction. The Maha Loop/Elroy Road effort was on that list until Tuesday’s action. With the action, Travis County Commissioners signal their intent to pursue project construction through CAMPO, at least initially, in the hopes of collecting some federal money.


The road and the Formula 1 raceway are within Precinct 4, represented by Commissioner Margaret Gómez and she sponsored the item. When asked about Eckhardt and Huber’s absence for the vote on the item Gomez told In Fact Daily to ask County Judge Sam Biscoe. “I think the judge probably has a better answer for that,” Gomez said. “He’s in charge of the agenda.”


Biscoe cited two reasons that the Maha Loop/Elroy road item moved forward without commissioners Eckhardt and Huber. “One is that (the item) came from staff,” Biscoe told In Fact Daily. “And two is that I didn’t hear from Huber or Eckhardt. I’m not assuming that they want to weigh-in on it – not that they won’t, but I just don’t know.


“When they get back,” Biscoe continued, “there is a provision in Roberts’ Rules of Order that will allow reconsideration. There is an avenue there.”


At court, the county executive in charge of Travis’ Transportation and Natural Resources department, Steve Manilla, told Commissioners that the Maha Loop/Elroy Road project had been listed on CAMPO’s illustrative list because, though the county saw a need for the project, it’s construction was not a given. The project began to move toward reality after an April meeting of Travis County and City of Austin staff with an interested, unnamed commercial developer.


According to county documents, “(d)uring discussions with the developer, (Travis County) and City of Austin staff identified additional opportunities to expand the request to improve future traffic flow in southeast Travis County, provide for additional access to the Del Valle ISD schools and facilities located along Ross Road and improve access to the Circuit of the Americas … race track.”


Biscoe wondered what might happen if, after the completion of its vetting process, CAMPO decided not to assist with the construction of the road. “What if CAMPO says, ‘thanks guys, but no thanks; we’re going to let you proceed on your own on this?’ ” he asked.


“It’s possible,” said Manilla. “(But) I don’t know why they would have any objection to it. We’ve talked to … the City of Austin … there is a developer out there for it who would like to see the road built. We’ve talked to all of the property owners – they’re very supportive of the project to the point of agreeing to dedicate right of way to the project. They have, in turn, talked to the (school district) in the area, and they are very supportive of it as well.”


As for Biscoe’s direct question, Manilla suggested that a CAMPO “no” would not necessarily kill the project. “Even if CAMPO were to reject it, it could still go forward as a county project,” Manilla said.


After the hearing Manilla told In Fact Daily that a developer could both dedicate right of way to the Maha Loop project and, “depending on how badly his development needs that road,” chip in for some of its construction costs. Manilla also left open the possibility of using county money to fill in any gaps in road construction that aren’t covered by the developer or federal grant money.

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