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CAMPO pushes transit, active transportation, other projects to the side for I-35

Tuesday, June 9, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization has at last approved a list of projects to defer from its 2021-2024 Transportation Improvement Program in order to contribute $633 million for the Interstate 35 Capital Express Central project. However, representatives from Travis County and Austin remain unhappy with the final result.

The agency’s Transportation Policy Board agreed to free up the funds April 20, but board members have since been caught in a back-and-forth with staff over how to choose projects to defer until a later date. As Chair Cynthia Long noted Monday, the list is a “compromise across the board,” but several Austin and Travis County representatives were unable to accept that compromise Monday.

Among their objections, Council Member Alison Alter said the process has been more reflective of politics than planning, and Council Member Jimmy Flannigan and Commissioner Brigid Shea both opposed the prioritization of $75 million for new service roads along U.S. Highway 183 while the highly popular and far less expensive overpass at RM 620 and Anderson Mill Road is being deferred. Faced with the economic uncertainty from Covid-19, Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Ann Kitchen criticized the choice to defer projects that could help create construction jobs relatively soon.

The board approved the list 15-6, with Alter, Adler, Flannigan, Shea, Kitchen, and Commissioner Jeff Travillion opposed, causing a minor rift between the board’s urban and rural representatives.

“With all due respect to my fellow Council members in Austin and commissioners in Travis County, we’re about to be asked to vote on a defer and maintain list to get more funding to a highway that will benefit Austin more than anybody, but yet the Council members and some of the Travis County folks are going to vote against it so it’s going to fall on all the outside suburb people to vote on this?” Round Rock Mayor Craig Morgan exclaimed. “I mean, we have an opportunity here; we’re all taking a haircut, but yet the folks that it’s going to be benefiting the most are going to vote no.”

However, once the list had been approved, the board unanimously approved the new TIP with Shea choosing to abstain.

Transportation advocates called on the board to reprioritize the project list based on construction let date prior to the vote Monday, noting that the chosen methodology has pushed all transit projects and many active transportation projects onto the defer list.

Some of the projects now on the defer list include a grade separation at the intersection of North Lamar Boulevard and the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority commuter rail Red Line, the Northern Walnut Creek hike-and-bike trail, and over $11 million in traffic signal safety upgrades.

“It feels like our local priorities have been hijacked,” said Robin Stallings, executive director of Bike Texas.

“It just seems so obvious that we should prioritize the let date; not only are there so many active transportation and safety projects that will benefit so many people from all over the region, but it would actually create some jobs,” he said.

According to Kelly Davis with Save Our Springs Alliance, choosing the projects based on construction timeline would allow full funding of all active transportation, transportation demand management, transit, and intelligent transportation system (ITS) projects.

Jay Crossley of the nonprofit Farm&City said that would also make the most financial sense given the current need for local jobs. From a public funding perspective, he said transit projects create 70 percent more jobs per dollar spent compared to roadway expansion projects, which are the “worst use of funds in terms of creating jobs.”

Despite the economic sense and public benefits, Tom Wald, executive director of the Red Line Parkway Initiative, said the personal preferences of board members are the reason these projects were pushed onto the defer list.

“What I’ve seen from the past 45 days is that some people on the dais who don’t like active transportation projects and that don’t like transit projects are doing whatever they can to obfuscate the process in order to delay those projects as much as possible,” he told the board.

With its final list, CAMPO was able to maintain 52 percent of the projects from the proposed TIP, a substantial increase from the previous iteration in May, which would have kept only 44 percent of projects on track.

In an effort to bridge the board’s urban/rural divide, Pflugerville Council Member Rudy Metayer reminded the board that the final list reflects the board’s many conflicting priorities as well as the regional need to fix I-35.

“The way (I-35) has been a blight, on a variety of different levels, not only from a transportation but from a socioeconomic standpoint, on our region as a whole – it needs to be addressed. Although I may not necessarily agree with what the proposed plan is right now … we know that needs to be fixed.”

Read a full list of projects below. Officials chose Scenario C.

Download (PDF, 167KB)

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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