Wednesday, April 1, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

Travis Commissioners split over CAMPO 2040 Plan

Discontent over a landmark transportation plan drove Travis County Commissioners to draw distinct battle lines Tuesday between two competing visions.

The hour-long discussion on the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s developing 2040 Regional Transportation Plan featured a rare crack in the court’s usual comity.

In the end, the court voted 3-1-1 to ask CAMPO to postpone any SH 45SW work so Commissioners could conduct a deeper study on what impact a full extension with I-35 would have on MoPac. Commissioners Brigid Shea and Ron Davis along with County Judge Sarah Eckhardt voted for the measure, with Commissioner Gerald Daughtery against and Commissioner Margaret Gómez abstaining.

Commissioners also endorsed a staff recommendation to withhold approval pending further review of a plan to add four tolled lanes to MoPac south of Lady Bird Lake.

The division formed over the vote on submitting the court’s official comments to CAMPO, which is still gathering public input on the draft plan. Before taking any action, county staff and CAMPO Executive Director Ashby Johnson briefed the court on recent changes made to the plan.

The county would prioritize those changes, including several new area roadway projects, to receive regional, state and federal funds. One project in particular caught Shea’s attention: A design study that would extend SH 45SW — a roadway that still exists only on planning maps — all the way from MoPac Boulevard to I-35.

“I just want to say for the record that I don’t want to get a little pregnant on connecting I-35 through SH 45SW with MoPac until we’ve had a real community discussion over whether we want to do that,” Shea said. During her successful run for Precinct 2 last year, Shea cast herself as a critic of any work on SH 45SW.

Eckhardt zeroed in on two other projects on the list. She declared that a large section of Hamilton Pool Road west of Ranch Road 12 and the proposed expansion of Reimers-Peacock Road (connecting Hamilton Pool Road with SH 71) are not regional projects.

“It is highly improbable that federal money would ever go toward a project that is as local as this,” Eckhardt said. She questioned whether the small population currently there would become much more dense in the future.

That drew a quick rebuke from Daugherty, whose Precinct 3 includes all three projects highlighted by Eckhardt and Shea.

“That’s not true,” Daugherty told Eckhardt. “We’ve watched western Travis County grow. Some people are trying to do the same with western Travis County that they’ve done in other parts of the county, which is: Don’t build roads and don’t build infrastructure and maybe we won’t grow. Well guess what, we are growing everywhere.”

Daugherty went on to explain that the Reimers-Peacock Road project is a matter of neighborhood connectivity supported by the Lake Travis Independent School District and the local emergency services district. He went on to vent his exasperation at the reluctance to move forward with the projects.

“It’s just unnerving to sit and to continue to talk about mobility, transportation, traffic, and all the things we have to talk about in this community, and you still have a mindset from some that you don’t build roadways,” Daugherty said. “It’s just unbelievable.”

After Daugherty staked out his position, Eckhardt shed light on her approach to transportation policy.

“We ourselves, in our decision how to spend our very limited transportation dollars, are looking to spend them in centers or in corridors that connect centers,” Eckhardt said. She pointed out that the main areas of population growth in unincorporated Travis County are east of I-35. “And so my point is that we should have the discipline to put our roadway investments where the people are today and where the people will be tomorrow.”

That failed to mollify Daugherty, who argued that removing the road projects from CAMPO’s regional plan violated the will of his constituents.

“There’s a dangerous road — for lack of a better way to put it — that we’re going down,” Daugherty said. “Some of you want to have say-so on what happens in Precinct 3 and what doesn’t happen in Precinct 3. I get that, because of your constituency. But it is not right to the Precinct 3 commissioner who had the majority of the vote because of my stance on mobility and transportation.”

Eckhardt reiterated her position that CAMPO should not be used as a “grab-bag” of money for county projects. She suggested federal and state administrators would — in the future — be less inclined to steer money toward “intensely local” projects.

Gómez noted the implications of that.

“That means changing our strategy then, because what’s happened in the past is that I think we’ve been good partners with the state,” she said. “We’ve put money up so that the big projects can get done, but then we leave out our local projects.”

Eckhardt agreed and suggested that better management of county projects would “arguably” give them better negotiating advantage with state and federal transportation leaders.

Daugherty disagreed with this notion as well before finally finding common ground with Eckhardt.

“You’re right, Judge, it’s not very productive, and it has the potential to create an unfortunate working situation on the Commissioners Court, and we don’t need that because I think we have worked collegially to this point,” he conceded.

On Monday, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority pulled that scheme from CAMPO’s 2035 plan, but it remains in the 2040 draft.

County staff will forward the court’s comments to CAMPO’s Transportation Policy Board. There will be one final public meeting tonight at 5:30 at One Texas Center before the board reviews all public comments and makes a recommendation to CAMPO staff by April 13. CAMPO will consider final adoption May 11.

 

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

CAMPO Transportation Policy Board: CAMPO's governing body. It consists of elected representatives from the region's cities and counties.

CTRMA: The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority. A governmental agency created, according to its web site, in 2002 to "improve the transportation system in Williamson and Travis counties." The site also notes that the agency's "mission is to implement innovative, multi-modal transportation solutions that reduce congestion and create transportation choices that enhance quality of life and economic vitality." In addition to other responsibilities, the agency oversees a set of toll roads in the region.

SH45SW: A controversial road project that supporters argue would ease traffic traveling through areas of far Southwest Travis and far Southeastern Hays County. Opponents argue that the environmental impact of the effort, which runs close to sensitive land, is not worth that risk. The debate over the issue goes back as far as the mid-1980s.

Travis County Commissioners Court: The legislative body for Travis County. It includes representatives from the four Travis County Precincts, as well as the County Judge. The County Judge serves as the chair of the Court.

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