Monday, December 25, 2006

"In recent meetings, when toll roads have come up, it's been difficult to spot more than a handful of members wholeheartedly in support of them."

2006: Toll roads under the tree

December 25, 2006

Ben Wear
Austin American Statesman
Copyright 2006

Let's be frank: It's Christmas, and the overwhelming majority of you probably aren't thinking about transportation much this morning. Other than one particular journey that involved a donkey.

But this afternoon, unless this newsprint gets swept up with the ribbons and wrapping paper, maybe you'll be ready for a look back at the year in transportation and a brief look ahead.

The 41 miles of toll road that opened in the Austin area this year have been free so far. At the southbound entrance from U.S. 79 to Texas 130 near Hutto, plaza supervisor Sandra Hughes waved drivers on.

The year just expiring, at least in Central Texas, was one of culmination and, for many transportation advocates, consternation.

The Texas Department of Transportation opened up 41 miles of toll road in the Austin area, with 25 miles more on deck for completion in 2007. The agency's much younger sibling, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, likewise is closing in on opening its own toll road.

And Capital Metro, though still about two years from opening its commuter rail line from Leander to downtown Austin, culminated a 20-year local public wrangle on passenger rail by actually ordering train cars (from Switzerland!) and beginning to build stations and new track.

The consternation? Well, while all those toll roads have opened and are about to open around here, plans for a second round of tollways have been up on the blocks politically.

As for Capital Metro, plans for a second rail election in November (for a downtown Austin streetcar system) fell off the track early in 2006.

And, with its union still restive, federal funding drying up, its own previously robust bottom line tightening and local political support in question, it's by no means clear that such an election will happen in 2007. Or that voters would say yes.

The upshot, unless the return of master mover-shaker Kirk Watson to the scene as a state senator changes things, is that what have been a very busy few years in transportation around here could hit a lull late in the decade.

Take a free ride

Unquestionably the most significant transportation event of the year locally was the opening Oct. 31 and Dec. 13 (for a second piece) of 41 miles of tollway.

The three roads — Loop 1 extension, Texas 45 North and Texas 130 — are free to drive until Jan. 6, when cash customers will begin to pay. Motorists with electronic toll tags will begin paying their full price (90 percent of the cash price) in March.

Construction continues on a small piece of Texas 45 North's western end, where it will connect to the 183-A tollway to Cedar Park when it opens in March. And it will be late in 2007 before the opening of the other 20 miles of Texas 130, completing the 49-mile road.

The beginning of the end of Austin's first phase of toll roads should happen this summer, when construction is likely to start on a fifth tollway, Texas 45 Southeast. That 7.4-mile road, along with Texas 130, would allow travelers to bypass the Interstate 35 mess through Round Rock and Austin.

Phase too much?

A second round of five toll roads, first introduced and then quickly approved by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board in 2004, got deeper in trouble as 2006 moved along.

The 23-member CAMPO board has seen considerable turnover in the two years since that first vote. Now a move is afoot to trim the board to 18 members.

In recent meetings, when toll roads have come up, it's been difficult to spot more than a handful of members wholeheartedly in support of them.

The board through most of this year managed to delay a key vote that would have reconfirmed toll plans for sections of U.S. 183, Texas 71 and U.S. 290 (in both East and Southwest Austin) and the proposed Texas 45 Southwest.

Supposedly, the delay was tied to the November release of a $300,000 consultant study on the Phase 2 plan. But that plan provided no definitive direction.

Now, the buzz is that Senator-to-be Watson — his new office comes with a seat on the CAMPO board — has been effecting a sort of shuttle diplomacy on the issue in recent weeks.

The expectation (hope?) is that when Watson (as is generally assumed) takes over in January the chairmanship of what could become a much different CAMPO board, he'll find a way to split the baby. We'll see.

39 percent solution

The November gubernatorial free-for-all became something of a toll road referendum, with Gov. Rick Perry for them and his three main opponents agin 'em.

A series of 55 public meetings this summer on the corridor plan (part of a federally required environmental study) provided a perfect forum for Republican-turned- Independent candidate Carole Keeton Strayhorn to bash Perry on the issue. She had her say at almost 20 of the meetings, and Perry was hurt by the issue.

But he won anyway, albeit with just 39 percent of the vote.

So Perry, who truly believes in toll roads and in allowing private companies to build and run them in the state's stead, is unlikely to deviate much from his position on tolls.

One caveat: A late November report from the Governor's Business Council, an independent group peopled by Perry supporters, recommended indexing the gas tax to inflation to avert the need for a good chunk of new toll roads. The report, and reaction to it in the Legislature, could cause some tempering.

Rail travails

Work continues quietly, with no apparent bumps, on the 32-mile line from Leander that will open in late 2008. The first of six diesel-powered cars should arrive late this year, and station construction has begun.

But the introduction in April of a potential second phase of rail, a streetcar line from downtown to development at the old Mueller airport site, elicited mostly yawns.

And funding — it would cost about $230 million, in Capital Metro's current estimation — is a huge question. Capital Metro, even without investing some of its sales tax money in future rail construction, says it must trim labor costs.

So it wants help from local governments, particularly the City of Austin, and concessions from the union that represents two-thirds of its work force.

Neither entity seems anxious to help in that manner. And some of the agency's left-leaning political base remains unhappy about how the agency is handling its labor questions.

State law requires the agency to get the public's permission in an election if it wants to build more rail and, in a separate vote, borrow money by selling bonds.

Capital Metro has considerable fence-mending to do before the time might be ripe to ask those questions.

— Getting There appears Mondays. Contact Getting There at 445-3698 or

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