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TxDOT to reconsider U.S. 183 South route

Tuesday, October 13, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

After a series of stakeholder meetings beginning last November, the Texas Department of Transportation is considering rerouting its planned U.S. Highway 183 South expansion to avoid impacting a historic African American family farm and cemetery in southeastern Travis County.

According to Rosalind Alexander-Kasparik, the farm is the county’s oldest Black-owned farm, founded by her great-great-grandfather, Daniel Alexander, a racehorse breeder and trainer who moved to Travis County in January 1839. The adjacent Alexander Cemetery has been designated a historic cemetery by the Texas Historical Commission.

On Monday, Elizabeth Merritt, deputy general counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, told the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board that the historic designation protects the site from the highway expansion under the 1966 Department of Transportation Act. Unless there is proven to be no feasible alternative route, Merritt said the federal law prohibits the department from purchasing right-of-way from the historic site.

As proposed, the expansion project could convert the existing four-lane highway into a 12-lane freeway between State Highway 71 and State Highway 130, increasing the state’s right-of-way from 175 feet to as wide as 400 feet.

“You, the CAMPO board, have it within your power to begin to correct the pattern of abuse of African American landowners throughout TxDOT’s weaponization of eminent domain in Central Texas,” Winell Alexander Herron told the board during public comment on Monday.

Heather Ashley-Nguyen, TxDOT advance project development director, emphasized that the project is still in the early stages of environmental review and that there will still be plenty of time for revisions. Without offering specifics, Ashley-Nguyen said the department has already identified potential realignments that would route the freeway around the Alexander family properties. Those alternatives, she said, are so far from the existing alignment that the department had to get a plane to shoot new aerial photographs for route presentation.

The Alexander family has presented three potential alternatives, each of which route the freeway to the east of U.S. 183. Alexander-Kasparik acknowledged that the family members are “not engineers,” but only request that TxDOT examine all possible alternatives to “prevent further obliteration” of the historic sites.

“Just for the record, it’s really important to understand that this really is a significant place in the African American community around Austin,” Commissioner Jeff Travillion said.

TxDOT will present the alternative plans to the public with an open house in March 2021, one month after meeting with the Alexander family to discuss the various routing options. During that time, each option will be vetted according to how well it achieves the project goals.

As part of that reimagining effort, Caldwell County representative Edward Theriot and City Council Member Jimmy Flannigan both requested that the 400-foot-wide freeway design also be revisited in light of the often detrimental impact of such giant projects on adjacent properties.

“I can look up (U.S. 183) on the northwest side of the city where my district is and it’s about 300 feet wide and it’s four lanes each direction, four lanes on the access road and we’re about to do four more lanes of an express lane project – it’s only 300 feet wide,” Flannigan said. “So I think there really is some profile conversation to have … 400 feet is pretty wide for an urban and suburban setting.”

Ashley-Nguyen said there will be sufficient time to revisit the design during the upcoming public engagement process. “We don’t have to hurry on this project at all,” she explained. “The funding is not identified. If we need to spend a little bit more time once we get all of this out in the public, I’m OK with that.”

Donna Carter, local preservation architect and planner, said the land in question is likely to contain significant historical information about the history of African American families in Austin.

“The fact that TxDOT might blindly find no other alternatives than to dig up and take away this legacy is really a measure of the lack of respect we as a community have endured for so long, and indeed have come to expect,” Carter said. “This land can be bulldozed, documented in a government report and then driven over by thousands who have no idea what they have destroyed.”

Photo via Google Maps.

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