Tuesday, August 28, 2007

"CAMPO likes to present the plan as a major alteration, but it's not. It's basically the same plan."

New tollway plan taking shape

Opposition to earlier tollways says it will actively oppose this one as Oct. 8 vote nears

August 28, 2007

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

A scaled-back plan to expand and put tolls on four Austin highways and build a fifth tollway from scratch drew cautious support Monday from the board charged with making Central Texas transportation decisions.

The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board will hold a public hearing Sept. 10 and then will make a final decision Oct. 8 on the five roads, which have been a source of controversy since 2004.

"We need to be continuously very forthright and upfront," said Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, a CAMPO board member who opposed the 2004 toll plan, which ultimately died. "We don't have the dollars to do this without tolls."

When the subject is tolls, recent history indicates that Texas politicians have reason to be cautious. The leader of Austin's anti-tollway faction, which sprang up in reaction to the 2004 tollway plan, said he and his compatriots plan a push in coming weeks to dash this plan as well. But they will be talking to a board that seems to have accepted tolls as a necessary evil.

"I do believe this is close to what the board will be asked to vote on," state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said Monday. Watson is chairman of the CAMPO board, which is primarily made up of elected officials. CAMPO must approve highway projects that use federal funds (which is most of them) and make decisions about whether to charge tolls.

The five roads, which would constitute the area's second wave of tollways after five opened or initiated construction in the past year, are U.S. 290 in Northeast Austin, U.S. 183 in East Austin (Ed Bluestein Boulevard), Texas 71 in Southeast Austin, U.S. 290 and Texas 71 in Oak Hill, and the proposed Texas 45 Southwest.

"We have a big and growing mobility problem and limited funds to address it," Watson said. "We have been working very hard in an open and accountable way to figure out how we can get the biggest bang for our buck."

But Sal Costello, founder of the Austin Toll Party, said the hundreds of millions of dollars of tax money that could be used on the five roads should go toward toll-free improvements, even if that means less is done.

"We want our people to be in front of the CAMPO board Sept. 10," Costello said. "They like to present (the plan) as a major alteration, but it's not. It's basically the same plan."

Actually, the plan contains at least one significant difference from 2004. Sections of Texas 71 and U.S. 183 in East Austin that were slated to have tolls in 2004, even though they were under construction then using only tax money, have opened as free roads and would remain so. However, officials have said that a single lane on each side might become a "managed lane" with tolls.

Bob Daigh, the Austin district engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation, told the CAMPO board Monday that he can build the five tollways — while maintaining free passage along the same rights of way — for $1.45 billion. Two weeks ago, Daigh said the cost would be $2.5 billion. But the money available for construction would not support the larger figure. So Daigh and his staff produced an interim version, which does not include overhauling the Texas 71/U.S. 183 interchange near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport or expanding Texas 71 east of the airport and in some cases puts off building frontage lanes or flyover bridges.

Watson called the elimination of the Texas 71 expansion to Texas 130 a disappointment. The ultimate plans for the five roads would include making Texas 71 a tollway with free frontage roads between the airport entrance and Texas 130, about 3 miles to the east.

The plan outlined Monday includes building an elevated expressway with frontage lanes through Oak Hill, an approach opposed by some environmentalists and Oak Hill residents.

The proposed expansion of U.S. 290 from U.S. 183 to the Texas 130 tollway, which also includes continuous frontage lanes and six toll lanes, would be built under the $1.45 billion plan.

bwear@statesman.com, 445-3698

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