TxDOT clarifies MoKan dos and MoKan don’ts
Monday, July 11, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard
The Texas Department of Transportation has closed the door on running public transit without an accessory road project on a future travel corridor that runs between Interstate 35 and State Highway 130.
On Thursday, a TxDOT spokesperson told the Austin Monitor that the “MoKan corridor could not be exclusively rail,” a decision that could upend the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s plans and Pflugerville City Council’s preferences.
“However, transit has been and remains a priority along the corridor,” Kelli Reyna said in an email, leaving open the possibility that a future roadway project could feature dedicated lanes for express buses.
The Monitor was seeking clarification on remarks made by Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization Executive Director Ashby Johnson at Wednesday night’s CAMPO board meeting.
Johnson told the board that his staff had sent a letter to TxDOT’s General Counsel Division seeking to determine whether the MoKan corridor was purchased with money from the State Highway Fund, which is filled through the state gas tax. Johnson told the board that right-of-way obtained through the fund “cannot be used for transit purposes.”
He went on to say, “To this date, we have not got(ten) a written response back from General Counsel. However, (CAMPO board member and TxDOT district engineer Terry McCoy) and I were in a meeting about a week or so ago, and a person from General Counsel was on a conference call and this came up. And she did tell us that, yes indeed, it was state gas tax money, and unless that right-of-way was purchased from the state, we’d have to look at options that were in keeping with the state constitution on the use of that right-of-way.”
After the meeting, Capital Metro Vice President of Strategic Planning and Development Todd Hemingson told the Monitor that Johnson’s comments were a “bombshell.” Capital Metro’s Project Connect North Corridor planning effort has long envisioned public transit components on separate parts of the MoKan corridor, including regional passenger rail on the northern section and express bus service on the southern section.
TxDOT’s clarification of Johnson’s remarks would seem to keep the plans for the express bus lanes intact. Less certain is the fate of the regional rail plans, which is already clouded by the Lone Star Rail District’s bleak outlook.
Hemingson was unavailable to comment on the clarification. However, Lone Star Rail Deputy Executive Director Joe Black told the Monitor that the district had planned to lay new track along the MoKan corridor from Georgetown to U.S. Highway 79 and then connect to Union Pacific’s existing rail line. That plan has since fizzled thanks to UP’s dissolution of its partnership with the district. However, Black said that alternative options under consideration still include MoKan.
TxDOT’s decision would also seem to foreclose on the desires of Pflugerville City Council, which in early 2015 called for essentially anything but a roadway on the corridor. That vote came after TxDOT unveiled one potential proposal for MoKan that featured an elevated highway slicing through the city.
“We’re very interested in the outcome of MoKan,” Pflugerville Assistant City Manager Trey Fletcher told the Monitor last week. “It’s an asset that ought to be utilized but not to the detriment of the community.”
State Rep. Celia Israel called TxDOT’s elevated highway proposal “horrendous.” She and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt are both spearheading an effort to explore transit options on MoKan. It was their request to create a working group to study the matter that led to CAMPO’s Johnson reaching out to TxDOT in the first place. Johnson indicated on Wednesday that a working group could convene as early as this August.
“If we have the opportunity to build a new asset, I would like that asset to be transit-friendly,” Israel told the Monitor. “And we’re supportive of Pflugerville in this effort, because if you think of MoKan as going from Austin to steps of Georgetown, Pflugerville is the belt buckle.”
Israel said she isn’t daunted by TxDOT’s refusal to give the corridor exclusively to transit. She said she is amenable to the idea of express buses that could carry hundreds of passengers at a time.
“I feel confident that TxDOT is on board with being supportive and helpful,” Israel said. “Rather than finding ways to say no, they’re going to find ways to say yes.”
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