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CAMPO mulls project cuts to free up dollars for I-35

Tuesday, April 7, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization will hold a special called meeting Monday, April 13, to consider cutting $600 million from planned transportation projects across the six-county region to help the Texas Department of Transportation reconstruct the central segment of its $7.5 billion I-35 Capital Express project.

The Capital Express project is a three-part plan to add non-tolled managed lanes to Interstate 35 in each direction from State Highway 45 North to SH 45 Southeast. The state has already committed funding to both the north and south segments of the project and is scheduled to vote to provide the bulk of funding for the $4.3 billion central leg between U.S. Highway 290 East and Ben White Boulevard at the end of the month.

At the Transportation Policy Board’s online meeting Monday, Chair Cynthia Long proposed that the board push the action item to next week to give board members an opportunity to consider the decision. Long said the delay is also intended to calm any misgivings from the community over the item’s last-minute inclusion as an action item on the board’s agenda.

“It certainly is not my choice, or I think anybody’s choice, to have to make these decisions in the short time frame that we have, but we are there,” Long said.

The reallocation of state dollars initially appeared as an information item on the board’s draft agenda distributed March 30, but Long directed CAMPO staff to make it an action item late last week in order to show the Texas Transportation Commission that the region knows which projects to defer, should the commission commit to reallocate $3.4 billion to the I-35 project at its April 30 meeting.

Save Our Springs Alliance representative Bobby Levinski, who wasn’t able to communicate during the meeting due to technical difficulties, sent board members an email Monday claiming that the item’s posting process violated the Texas Open Meetings Act. For governing bodies larger than four counties, Levinski said, the law requires providing public notice on either the organization’s website or on each of the member county clerk websites.

“Neither requirement was met in this case,” Levinski said. “For illustration, as of this morning, Bastrop County still had the original agenda posted.”

Executive Director Ashby Johnson, however, said the agenda was sent to the secretary of state’s office Thursday afternoon, then sent to each county clerk office on Friday around 2 p.m., both within the 72-hour notice window. Tim Tuggey, CAMPO legal counsel, said it’s clear to him that the board had the legal authority to take action Monday despite any public objections to the contrary.

Jay Crossley, executive director of nonprofit Farm&City, said the public needs access to “actual information,” clarifying the selection of deferred projects and how they were chosen, as soon as possible.

Mayor Steve Adler criticized CAMPO’s lack of transparency, noting that the list of deferred projects gives board members no indication of how or why individual projects were selected over others for deferral.

“We’re about to make decisions with respect to many hundreds of millions of dollars and we’re making a decision that doesn’t seem to be based on any kind of objective criteria,” Adler said. “I’m concerned that there are projects on this list that I think would score in the bottom 10 percent of projects in the region but yet they’re being pushed to the top and are going to get funded.”

Terry Mitchell, the board’s transit representative from the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said a highly ranked transit project has been listed for deferral without any clarification about how the project was evaluated.

“I think we collectively are making some good decisions and I’m proud of (Texas Department of Transportation) working with us to get I-35 started,” Mitchell said. “We just ask that we make sure that we try to move the most people for the least amount of money.”

Examples of projects that will still be included in the 2021-2024 Transportation Improvement Program are the Oak Hill Parkway project, U.S. Highway 183 North and $1.5 billion of improvements to I-35.

“I’m glad that we are delaying the vote, but I do understand that we will need to take this vote despite the really difficult, and I think, justifiable issues with the process,” said Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt.

Johnson told the board he will work with the TxDOT Austin District to compile the information behind project deferral selection, which Long said she will then try to distribute to board members.

“This is a painful process for everyone, but I think it’s important to keep our eye on the big picture,” Long said.

Monday’s meeting will be held online via WebEx at 2 p.m.

Rendering of I-35 proposal courtesy of TxDOT.

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