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Special Report: Manor, planning for the future

Monday, October 12, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

Today, the Austin Monitor, KUT and KLRU present a collaboration that examines the impact of our region’s growth on Manor, Texas: Austin’s Eastern Frontier. We invite you to explore that series and offer you this piece on transportation planning efforts in the area as a bonus.

While there is no way to predict the future of transportation in any given region, planning agencies often do their best to see into a crystal ball. When they attempt do so, one of the primary questions they must ask is how to pay for the necessary infrastructure – and toll roads frequently pop up as an option.

Even though they are a reality for many people, there remains vocal criticism of roads like the 290 East Toll (also known as the Manor Expressway), which leads into Manor from the west, as a means of financing mobility in Central Texas. Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt is on the front lines of this debate.

Eckhardt called the choice between the toll road or its frontage roads for commuting to work a “Hobson’s choice,” or a choice that really presents only one option.

“It was one of the reasons why toll roads were so robustly argued over,” Eckhardt said. “I was very much against toll roads when they were instituted, particularly in light of the fact that most of them are going to the east.”

Eckhardt was referring to the growth outlined in the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization 2040 Plan, the long-range transportation plan for Travis, Williamson, Hays, Bastrop, Burnet and Caldwell counties. The organization is often referred to as CAMPO.

The 2040 Plan indicates that more than 90 percent of the new highway lane miles that will have been constructed between 2010 and 2040 will be part of either tolled highways or express lanes on nontolled highways.

About two-thirds of the tolled highway miles outlined in the plan will have been built in the federally defined environmental justice area, where primarily minority and low-income populations reside. The vast majority of that area, which encompasses Manor, lies east of I-35.

Eckhardt, who sits on the CAMPO board of directors and abstained from voting on the plan when it passed in May, argued that placing toll roads in such areas impacts residents.

“It affects people profoundly because folks are moving further out to find decent housing stock and education opportunities for their children that they can afford because Austin is becoming more expensive,” Eckhardt said.

“As they move out, oftentimes – and this is no knock on the individual, this is just something that falls off the radar – they don’t think beforehand what the additional cost is going to be to them in time and transportation costs, and sometimes that can eat up any savings you get from moving further out,” Eckhardt continued.

“This is a problem because the way we fund transportation services in Texas really works to the detriment of someone, a family, that moves to a community like Manor or Pflugerville or Del Valle,” she concluded.

Eckhardt argued that toll funding can be used effectively as a tool to manage roadway capacity, but she emphasized that it is being used primarily as a funding source. “We’re extracting greater amounts of funding for transportation from the populations least able to afford it,” she said. “To the extent they can’t afford it at all, they don’t get to utilize that new infrastructure at all.”

When it is collected, Eckhardt said, toll road revenue should go, in part, to funding new transit projects.

Ashby Johnson, executive director of CAMPO, responded to some of Eckhardt’s criticisms in an interview.

“The long-range plan does rely heavily on toll facilities in the future,” Johnson said. “The reasons we’re having to do that, quite frankly, is up until this last session, the (Texas) Legislature was not providing much in the way of new revenue for us, so in order to meet the demand that we were estimating for future years, it was either toll or nothing.”

Johnson also pointed out that, although the Texas Legislature did allocate additional funding for transportation improvements during the 84th Legislative Session, neither the Texas nor U.S. legislatures have raised the motor fuels tax – the primary funding source for highway improvements – since the early 1990s.

“Moving forward, things may change – I don’t know,” Johnson continued. “Having said that, there’s probably always going to be some toll facilities in the plan. Otherwise, I don’t know how to make the numbers work.”

Johnson also argued that roads such as the 290 East Toll provide benefits to area residents – even if they don’t use the tolls – because they include free alternatives such as frontage roads.

Johnson specifically addressed concerns about the high proportion of toll roads popping up in the environmental justice area in an email. He pointed out that the Travis County Land, Water and Transportation Plan, adopted in December 2014, “indicates that the county will be using incentives to encourage growth” east of I-35 and State Highway 130.

The plan does envision growth near SH 130, which is about 2 miles west of Manor. “More intense development pressure on land and water resources is occurring in the eastern half of the county than the western half,” it reads. “Supporting compact development along the SH 130 corridor would allow stakeholders to implement more conservation measures ahead of development.”

Johnson seemed optimistic about the future of the region. “The toll lanes and the frontage roads to those facilities along with bicycle and pedestrian facilities, agreements that eastern communities are making with (the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority) to provide transit service for places outside of the service area and improvements to nontolled roadway facilities will provide mobility to future residents in the eastern portion of the region,” he wrote.

“It is my hope that we might actually be ahead of the problem for once rather than trying to play catch up,” Johnson concluded.

Photo of Manor, Texas, taken Oct. 06, 2015, by Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT News.

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