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Massive road expansion bears down on Austin’s east side

Thursday, March 31, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority will officially turn the dirt next week on one of the largest locally financed infrastructure projects in the region’s history.

Unlike other CTRMA projects – including the MoPac Improvement Project, MoPac South and State Highway 45 Southwest – the 183 South Project has largely progressed with little public controversy. However, during Wednesday’s meeting of the board of directors, board Member David Armbrust reported that one potentially controversial aspect of the project had popped up on his radar.

“Last night, I received a telephone call and saw a series of tweets expressing concerns about these cross streets that we’re cutting off,” Armbrust said, referencing five existing intersections along the highway that will be erased by the new project. Those include East 51st Street, Techni Center Drive, Bolm Road, Vargas Road and Thompson Lane.

Drivers looking to cross the highway at those streets will instead have to head down the frontage road to the next intersection and take a protected U-turn – known colloquially as a Texas turnaround – before doubling back to their destination. In addition, CTRMA will construct bicycle and pedestrian bridges at East 51 Street and Bolm Road, along with two more over Boggy Creek.

Project Manager Aaron Autry told the board that despite adding miles to the trip, the new configuration will be just as efficient as the status quo. “The models tell us the travel times will be almost the same as what they are today,” Autry said.

CTRMA Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein noted that the authority had conducted public outreach for more than a year before the final plan was crafted. That sentiment was backed up on Wednesday afternoon by a representative of the YMCA, whose East Communities facility will effectively lose direct access to East 51st Street once the project is finished.

“We’ve been in discussions for years,” Thom Parker, the YMCA’s vice president of facilities management, told the Austin Monitor before concluding, “It won’t impact us too awfully much.”

In a conversation with the Monitor after the meeting, Heiligenstein balked at the suggestion that 183 South would disconnect far East Austin from the rest of the city in a manner similar to I-35’s division between east and west.

“I don’t think that’s true,” he said before reiterating that there had been months of public outreach leading up to next week’s groundbreaking. He also noted that adding extra overpasses at each of the five intersections would be “prohibitively expensive.”

In addition to the enhanced bicycle and pedestrian connections along what is expected to be a busy 12-lane, high-speed roadway, Heiligenstein told the Monitor that the 183 South Project will drive future development along the corridor, which would presumably induce further demand on the toll road.

“It will be very attractive to new businesses and commercial activity and will create a lot of jobs,” he predicted.

CTRMA Director of Engineering Justin Word told the board that the 183 South Project is running ahead of schedule and that construction is set to begin on April 6.

Once the project is completed, U.S. Highway 183 between U.S. Highway 290 and State Highway 71 will feature three new limited-access toll lanes in each direction. On each side of that 8-mile ribbon of asphalt, there will be three lanes of nontolled frontage road.

Last May, CTRMA awarded Colorado River Constructors a $581 million contract to both design and to build the expansion. Heiligenstein told the Monitor that on top of other expenses, including financing, the true cost of the project will top $800 million.

If all goes according to plan, the 183 South Project will be completed by fall 2020.

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