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Council debates MoPac express lane resolution

Wednesday, May 6, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

Amid mounting opposition to a proposal to add four tolled express lanes to a section of South MoPac Expressway, City Council is considering a resolution that would ask the region’s planning organization to cut the project from its 2040 Regional Transportation Plan. Council went into detail at a Tuesday work session, in preparation for a scheduled vote Thursday.

“This resolution is intended to give a strong signal that, pending some information about alternatives, we can’t support having (four lanes) included in 2040,” said Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, who sponsored the item.

Transportation Department staff is currently developing alternative design proposals for the project — dubbed MoPac South — though it has not released them to the public.

The Transportation Policy Board of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization will decide whether to adopt the 2040 draft plan Monday. The board consists of elected representatives from Travis, Bastrop, Burnet, Caldwell, Hays and Williamson counties, including Mayor Steve Adler and Council Members Delia Garza, Ann Kitchen and Sheri Gallo.

The 2040 draft plan, if passed in current form, would serve as the CAMPO board’s final approval of the proposal brought forward by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority to add two express lanes in each direction of MoPac between Cesar Chavez Street and Slaughter Lane.

The proposed Council resolution would request that the CAMPO board amend the 2040 draft plan before adoption so that the scope of MoPac South includes only one new tolled lane in each direction. This would be consistent with the 2035 Regional Transportation Plan, which expires May 24.

The resolution would also direct staff to provide a report of its proposed alternatives to the Council Mobility Committee by the end of June. They would also work with Travis County, CTRMA and the City of Rollingwood — adjacent to MoPac — to study the project’s impacts on Cesar Chavez, West Fifth Street, Austin High School, Zilker Park, Lady Bird Lake and adjacent neighborhoods.

Perhaps most controversially, the draft states, “The City of Austin formally opposes the proposed expansion of MoPac South from one managed lane in each direction to two managed lanes in each direction.” A few Council members suggested removing this language, saying that they feel it would amount to ruling out one option while requesting additional options.

The major question that Council and staff wrestled with during the discussion was whether adopting the one-lane rather than the two-lane option would keep CTRMA from looking at the more comprehensive scenario — as it has been doing — and later requesting an amendment from the CAMPO board to expand the scope of the project.

According to CTRMA engineering manager Sean Beal, the answer is no. “There would be a certain amount of rework that we would have to do if it is not adopted as currently proposed,” he said. “But that would not prohibit us from keeping all options on the table and continuing to look at different configurations for the project.”

Council Member Leslie Pool said she believed that going that route would provide the city and stakeholders with a certain safeguard on the project. “In order to move to the larger project, you would have to secure the approval of the officials that are on the CAMPO board,” she explained.

“I think that the signal is that Austin residents and the people who commute through Austin want an intentional, deliberative process,” Pool continued. “To have an affirmative vote to include the large project in the 2040 plan would be something that is an asset and a benefit to the community as far as their understanding of how this project is proceeding.”

CTRMA Deputy Executive Director Mario Espinoza advocated for including the more comprehensive option in the 2040 plan.

“If we do place … two lanes in each direction in the 2040 plan for the MoPac South project, we do not necessarily need to construct two lanes in each direction, but it does give us that flexibility … in terms of what it is we can build,” Espinoza said. He added that the CTRMA does want a “deliberative process with the community.”

Tovo later told the Austin Monitor that requesting the amendment is the “crux” of the resolution. “We’re not foreclosing any consideration of other alternatives,” she said. “We would like to, as a city, make sure that a two-lane, double-decker toll lane is not included in the 2040 plan because there have been so many concerns and so many requests that the alternatives be studied first.”

Tovo was referring to a set of conceptual renderings that CTRMA released at an open house Feb. 26 showing that the proposal would include a pair of elevated lanes on MoPac crossing Lady Bird Lake and Zilker Park, with a flyover to Cesar Chavez, adjacent to Austin High School.

CTRMA has since pulled a request for the CAMPO board to amend the 2035 plan to include the two-lanes-per-direction proposal and announced that it plans to hold additional workshops, listening sessions and an open house on the project.

However, hundreds gathered at a rally that city and Travis County officials organized Saturday to protest the proposal’s inclusion in the 2040 plan.

Another issue that is likely to play out in coming weeks is the question of whether the elevated lanes would be necessary even in a scenario with one lane in each direction.

“Many people think that, if you do two lanes in each direction, that is the driver that forces us to build that elevated structure. That is not correct,” said Espinoza, echoing previous comments from CTRMA officials. “The elevated structure is an entrance and exit out of downtown.”

In her conversation with the Monitor, Tovo emphasized that Transportation staff is developing alternatives to the flyover proposal. “For me, that’s not a foregone conclusion,” she said.

Conceptual rendering of proposed MoPac South Lady Bird Lake crossing courtesy of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority.

 

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