Monday, July 16, 2007

"Kirk will 'fix' this."

Phase II in a fuzzy phase

Whither Phase II?

July 16, 2007

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

To remind those with a few Austin years in hand and inform newbies, Phase II was huge transportation news here in 2004 and 2005. Huge, as in a $2.2 billion plan to build or expand nine highways as toll roads.

Actually, two of those roads and about $400 million of the money had been lined up for several years (the roads are now completed or under construction) and rightfully belonged to a five-tollway Phase I. So Phase II (or was it Phase Two? Phase 2?) was really a seven-road, $1.8 billion plan to build the second wave of toll roads.

Either way, the plan was huge and conceived wholly behind closed doors, introduced in April 2004 as an all-or-nothing program, rammed through the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board three months later — and enduringly unpopular.

Almost immediately, it began to molt. Contrary to supporters' early claims, well, changes to the list were in fact permissible, and Austin could still get state funds associated with the plan.

First to go, before the plan's July 2004 approval, was an expansion of Capital of Texas Highway (Loop 360). A few months later, tolling of a nearly completed overpass on MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) in South Austin was scratched.

Then, bit by bit, each of the remaining five roads generated questions and opposing constituencies. CAMPO board members who had supported it developed doubts. And a $300,000 study, promoted as the silver bullet that would allow policymakers to make an informed (and politically armor-plated) decision, began.

That completed study came and went last fall, to no effect. The new elixir became incoming state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who insiders knew would become the CAMPO board chairman.

"Kirk will fix this," the thinking went.

Watson has been engaged in that fix since then, in and around some pressing business at the Capitol this spring. Symbolically, he has let it be known that he considers the label "Phase II" inoperative. Blank sheet of paper and all that.

Substantively, he created a committee of policymakers to look afresh at the Central Texas transportation picture and birthed an official mediation process for one of the Phase II (oops) projects, changes to U.S. 290 and Texas 71 at Oak Hill.

This is Austin. Process matters.

Predicting which projects will stay and which will go from the Phase formerly known as II has become something of a parlor game among the highway crowd.

The consensus has the expansion of U.S. 290 East (from U.S. 183 to just past Texas 130) happening as a toll road, with U.S. 183 and Texas 71 in East Austin falling off the list. What will occur in Oak Hill, and when, is truly up in the air. The one totally new road, Texas 45 South from MoPac eastward, which has been targeted by environmental groups, seems unlikely to be built anytime soon.

In theory, all this should shake out by the end of the year. But I could have typed that sentence in good faith a year ago, before that study came out. So we'll see.

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