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Adler pulls MoPac South express lane amendment

Tuesday, June 9, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

Without assurance that his proposed language change wouldn’t put the brakes on the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s 2040 Regional Transportation Plan, Mayor Steve Adler withdrew an amendment at Monday’s Transportation Policy Board meeting intended to clarify the description of the MoPac South express lane expansion.

Currently, the plan describes the MoPac South expansion as consisting of “two express lanes in each direction” on MoPac Expressway between César Chavez Street and Slaughter Lane. Adler’s amendment would have added the words “up to and including” before that language to indicate that the expansion may ultimately be less intensive than four lanes.

Adler, who sits on the board, told the Austin Monitor that he felt the amendment would have been a “nonsubstantive” change. He noted, however, that a few board members expressed concerns when he initially proposed the amendment on May 11 — when the board adopted the plan — that the change could have moved the Federal Highway Administration to reject the plan, causing delays.

“Because of the uncertainty at the last meeting, I pulled it down with the understanding that I could bring it up again if we could remove that cloud or that doubt,” Adler said. “We were unable to remove that cloud or doubt by this meeting. If we can, in the future, then we’ll just come back again.”

Mike Heiligenstein, director of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority — the project’s sponsor — stated prior to the plan’s adoption that neither his agency nor the planning organization are bound to go forward with the full four-lane expansion and that they have the option to pursue a two-lane expansion or other alternative if that is the preferred option.

Adler said when he first proposed the amendment that the new language would help provide assurance to Austin residents that the four-lane expansion is not the only available option and that others are being considered. He reiterated that point Monday, saying the language “would reflect more accurately what was actually happening.”

The plan also includes a footnote for the project — which Council Member Ann Kitchen put forward as board member — that states the board’s desire for the CTRMA to “study all options for the proposed MoPac South expansion including both 1 and 2 Express Lanes in each direction, as well as no-build.”

The original request came in the wake of a public outcry that took place after the mobility authority released conceptual renderings on Feb. 26 for a plan to add two express lanes to the highway in each direction, with a two-lane elevated platform over Lady Bird Lake and Zilker Park and a flyover connecting to César Chavez adjacent to Austin High School.

CTRMA announced on March 30 that it would reevaluate its plans and extend the public comment period on MoPac South by scheduling an open house in late summer. Mobility authority spokesperson Rick L’Amie told the Monitor on Monday that the agency has not yet set a date for the open house.

After hearing concerns from city and Travis County residents and elected officials about the “double-deck” proposal’s potential environmental, aesthetic, safety and affordability impacts, Council formally asked the planning organization and CTRMA on May 7 to work with Transportation Department staff and look more carefully at the project and alternatives.

Transportation Department Director Robert Spillar sent a letter to Heiligenstein on May 18 that included a draft of staff’s alternative proposal for MoPac South, which he wrote “differs somewhat” from the mobility authority’s proposal.

The alternative, Spillar asserted, “(eliminates) the need for a double-decked pair of flyover ramps north of the river.” He said the proposal would provide access to downtown without the flyovers by way of a “combined collector/distributor … lane configuration with access from the express lanes positioned south of downtown and consisting of a pair of wishbone ramps.”

The alternative, Spillar added, provides for four lanes between the proposed wishbone ramps and the interchange between MoPac, State Highway 71 and U.S. Highway 290 and includes improvements to the congested Y intersection at Oak Hill.

Spillar told the Monitor why his staff approached the idea the way it did.

“Our responsibility is to provide other options as we listen to folks in the community and clearly that’s what we heard, that they wanted another alternative to be provided,” Spillar said. “We provided an idea for how to access downtown directly without the flyover ramps and also how to serve the south end differently.”

Spillar said that he has not officially heard back from the mobility authority.

The Austin-American Statesman, however, reported on Friday that Heiligenstein said his agency is examining the concept.

Adler said he supports staff’s proposal. “It addresses a lot of the concerns that have been raised by city of Austin residents, and I’m looking forward to the consideration of the plan by the (mobility authority),” he said. “In my mind, it has several advantages over the initial plan, as proposed by the (mobility authority).”

Although his proposed amendment has hit a snag, Adler seemed confident in the project’s future.

“I was encouraged even at the beginning by the (mobility authority’s) agreement to consider and to study plans that were presented by the city after the Travis County and the city delegations were all raising the issue,” he said. “I feel good that we’re headed down that road.”

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