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Watson: Shorting Texas transportation needs hurts state’s future

Thursday, October 10, 2013 by Michael Kanin

State Senator Kirk Watson offered attendees at Wednesday’s Austin Chamber of Commerce’s State of Transportation lunch a steady diet of road talk. Though Watson did briefly mention the importance of other regional transportation modes during the course of a roughly 30-minute speech, his focus stayed firmly on pavement.

 

Watson framed the issue in terms of spending – or lack thereof. “It seems to me like we have two choices: Like our grandparents and parents before us, we can invest and help Texas grow – even if we are not in the generation that will directly benefit the most from all of that growth,” he said. “Or…we can let Texas atrophy. Wring cheap, short-term (projects) out of the resources that were left to us…leaving our kids to fend for themselves.”

 

Austin City Council Member Mike Martinez also serves as chair of the Capital Metro board. After Watson’s speech, Martinez told In Fact Daily that, as a state senator, Watson was “looking heavily at it from a TxDOT perspective—and TxDOT is mostly roads.”

 

Martinez also referenced remarks by Chamber Transportation Vice Chair Martha Smiley. “For my part, I’m heavily on the public transportation side because I chair Cap Metro, so I was pleased to see Martha Smiley speak so strongly about Project Connect and ensuring that public transportation is put at a level equal to roads,” he said.

 

Project Connect is the regional transportation planning effort currently underway. Partners in that effort include representatives of Cap Metro, the Austin City Council, and area stakeholders.

 

Watson began with notes on the rapid growth of Central Texas. He reminded Chamber guests about the success of Texas – and, above that, the success of the Austin region – in comparison to the rest of the United States.

 

He quickly pivoted to the traffic that comes with growth. Watson also reserved a hefty amount of criticism for the underfunding of the agency responsible for road infrastructure in the state.

 

He continued on to discuss Rider 42, the colloquialism reserved for a piece of legislation that funneled $300 million to various urban areas around Texas, and though he cited work set to begin on MoPac Boulevard next week, Watson reserved the biggest bang for I-35.

 

Watson called the scope of the I-35 traffic issue “massive,” then brought out statistics to support the idea that much of the region’s traffic – including tractor trailer loads – originates and ends locally. “We’ve met the problem and the problem is us,” he said.

 

Local architect Sinclair Black’s idea to “cut and cap” a portion of I-35 that runs from Lady Bird Lake to roughly MLK Boulevard also made an appearance. Watson put the cost for such a project at $1.9 billion – and noted that TxDOT is studying the option.

 

Watson compared Black’s plans to an alternate capacity-adding effort for I-35. The bill for that project would be $1.25 billion.

 

He added that a group had formed to look at I-35 options, and that TxDOT was an eager participant in that effort.

 

After Watson finished, Community Impact Publisher John Garrett hosted a quick Q&A session with State Rep. Jason Isaac (R-Dripping Springs) and State Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin).

 

Isaac pointed to the fact that the legislature “increased (transportation) appropriations this biennium by 14.5 percent.”

 

Howard countered that the funding was just the surface of what was needed. “It’s not a good answer, in my opinion. It’s a start,” she said, noting that TxDOT officials have said that the funding would only cover 25 percent of infrastructure projects designed to keep congestion at current levels.

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