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CTRMA and TxDOT disagree, putting project in potential holding pattern

Thursday, January 26, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

A rare spat between the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority and the Texas Department of Transportation is clouding the prospects of a major project at the intersection of two separate toll roads.

On Wednesday morning, CTRMA Director of Engineering Justin Word brought his board up to speed on the disagreement that could stall the construction of three flyovers connecting TxDOT’s State Highway 130 to the CTRMA’s Manor Expressway on U.S. Highway 290.

Word explained that CTRMA staff has been steadily working on the project with board input since the directors gave the initial green light in July 2015.

“Prior to kickoff of this work, it was our understanding that all parties were in agreement to move forward,” Word said, referring to both the toll road agency and TxDOT.

If built, two of the direct connectors would link northbound and southbound SH 130 to westbound Manor Expressway. A third would allow eastbound drivers on the expressway to swoop over to southbound SH 130.

Word identified the most important of the three as the connector that carries southbound drivers to the westbound expressway. Morning traffic currently backs up at that corner as drivers seek to pile into Austin from Pflugerville and neighboring communities. The CTRMA recently spent $2 million to add an extra at-grade turning lane there as a measure of short-term relief.

In December, CTRMA staff submitted to TxDOT the preliminary design plans of the three proposed direct connectors for staff review.

“In the intervening weeks since that December submittal, TxDOT has expressed concerns about the static toll gantries along the direct connectors,” Word said.

Clarifying for the board, Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein identified the primary sticking point. “There’s been some discussion of revenue-sharing and other aspects that we have not seen in the past,” he said, drawing confirmation from Word before he distilled the issue even further.

“The bottom line, just to scrape away everything, is that this agency to my knowledge has never just halted a project. And we are now prepared to stop developing this project based upon where we perceive the discussions are at (TxDOT headquarters)?”

“Yes, sir,” Word responded.

“That’s not an insignificant movement,” Heiligenstein said.

Board Chair Ray Wilkerson expressed his deep reservations regarding the notion of revenue-sharing. Wilkerson called it a “new world for this board.”

He continued, “I think that’s something this board’s going to have to talk about in detail before we ever decide to do something like that, because right now, I don’t think that pretty well fits our model.”

After Word’s briefing, TxDOT District Engineer Terry McCoy approached the dais. He started out by noting that the discussions between CTRMA staff and his agency have been “cooperative” and that multiple scenarios have been discussed.

He suggested that the board formally pitch its preferred scenario – the three direct connectors paid for by the CTRMA and with revenues solely collected by the CTRMA – to the Texas Transportation Commission, TxDOT’s governing body.

“This affords them the opportunity to consider that with all factors enumerated and considered as well,” McCoy said.

After mutual words of kindness between the board and McCoy, Wilkerson indicated that CTRMA staff will begin preparing that proposal as soon as possible in order to patch together a mutually satisfying solution with TxDOT.

“We do value that partnership,” Wilkerson concluded. “There’s no question about that.”

Photo by SPUI.

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