Krusee: "There are just a lot more cats to herd in Travis than there are in Williamson."
Today's toll road summit shows that Travis and Williamson governments could be heading down different planning tracks.
November 19, 2005
By Stephen Scheibal
If you're from Travis County, today's Texas 130 Corridor Summit looks like the big deal its planners want it to be: the three dozen speakers and panelists include past and current Austin mayors, a majority of the county Commissioners Court and a handful of prominent planners, all talking about the uncharted future of land around the region's new highway.
If you live a bit north of that — and you notice that Williamson County's official representation consists of one influential state representative and one Georgetown City Council member — the event might seem curiously remote.
The agenda for today's summit provides a measure of how differing cultures and priorities have put Williamson and Travis counties on very different tracks as both prepare for Texas 130.
In about two years, the 49-mile, $1.5 billion toll road will roll across rural plains east of Austin and Round Rock, opening the corridor to development that would be unimaginable without the road.
Officials in Williamson County and at Envision Central Texas, the planning group sponsoring the summit, all say the attendance reflects a confluence of scheduling conflicts.
It is not, they say, proof that the group — which has no regulatory power but was formed to help communities prepare for a population boom — has become Austin-centric.
But even a casual survey of 130 preparations demonstrates that Williamson County officials have not hesitated to detach their planning process from Envision Central Texas' deliberations. Austin, by contrast, has moved much more slowly.
"I think Williamson County and Round Rock should be lauded for their planning efforts. . . . In Austin, 130 seems to be just kind of an afterthought," said David Armbrust, a lawyer who represents developers in the corridor and is close to several Austin officials. "We just can't afford the luxury of dialogue for a year. It really should have been done six months or a year ago."
In Williamson County, business and political leaders have started planning utility infrastructure and road grids that will seed the land for development. Officials in different governments also talk regularly about what they are doing to prepare for the road and what they should be doing together.
There has already been one large-scale planning meeting for residents and officials; another is planned for Nov. 30.
Travis County, particularly its biggest city, has not seen nearly as much activity. Voters this month did approve more than $65 million in bonds to pay for new county roads and drainage projects, most of them in the vicinity of the new toll road.
But Austin, by far the region's dominant player, currently imagines no such projects.
A committee formed by Mayor Will Wynn that included several Envision Central Texas board members has recommended $852 million for new projects affecting the city's future. But the recommendations ignore roads and infrastructure near 130.
"There's just no question that today we're not ready" for Texas 130, Wynn said this week.
City officials laid out a plan earlier this year to annex land in the corridor. But the plan fizzled, and city officials are looking for other ways to get utilities and services into the corridor.
State Rep. Mike Krusee, a Republican who represents Williamson County and is chairman of the House Transportation Committee, has been active both in Williamson County's discussions and in Envision Central Texas. He said his county will be open to any recommendations that come out of the group.
The key in Williamson County, Krusee said, will be the results of Envision Central Texas' work. Travis County, he said, focuses more on the process, and the vast array of political interests in the city and on the Envision Central Texas board means that both entities move more slowly.
"It's so much easier to do things in Williamson County," Krusee said. Austin-area leaders "are not just sitting on their hands. There are just a lot more cats to herd in Travis than there are in Williamson."
Political leaders across Travis County, particularly in Austin, have thrown in enthusiastically with Envision Central Texas.
But the organization has spent much of its time balancing the cacophony of voices it represents.
Envision Central Texas Chairman Fritz Steiner, who's also dean of the University of Texas School of Architecture, said he hopes the summit will give people an idea of the challenges and opportunities facing them all and the ways that some officials are confronting them.
"I think there's probably different levels of understanding the corridor as a region," Steiner said.
The Lower Colorado River Authority, the agency that manages the region's surface water supplies, plans to convene its own 130-centered meeting of elected officials at the end of the month.
LCRA spokesman Robert Cullick said it's natural, and not necessarily bad, that the counties would plan for themselves first before turning to less-familiar neighbors.
Speaking of the Williamson County communities preparing for Texas 130, Cullick said, "These are communities that like each other. They're of the same size. They're of the same shape. . . . These people play football against each other on Fridays.
"It's all moving in a direction of people and communities wanting to be the best they can under similar circumstances."
© 2005 Austin American-Statesman: