Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Green Mile: "What if we TOLL the road to the toll road?"

Williamson County, agency eye tollway proposal

Extension of O'Connor Drive from RM 620 to Texas 45 North would be toll road.

January 15, 2008

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2008

Williamson County would get yet another toll road — a 1.3-mile connector between RM 620 and the existing Texas 45 North tollway — under a proposal getting serious consideration by county and mobility authority officials.

The road would be an extension of O'Connor Drive, which currently dead-ends at RM 620 on the northwestern edge of a large undeveloped area called the Robinson Ranch. The road, with a cost preliminarily estimated at $39 million, would cut across the ranchland and connect with an elevated stretch of Texas 45 North.

Williamson County would supply about $15 million, according to county road consultant Mike Weaver, and the rest likely would come from the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority. Roughly speaking, the county would cover the cost of the four-lane divided road making an S-curve across the ranch and the mobility authority would be paying for the $24 million interchange with Texas 45 North. The exact sharing of costs, however, remains to be worked out, Weaver said.

Mobility authority officials plan to meet Wednesday with Williamson County Commissioner Lisa Birkman, who represents the area where the road would be built.

Mike Heiligenstein, executive director of the mobility authority and a former Williamson County commissioner, said that residents in that section of the county for years have wanted some sort of road cutting across the ranch.

"They either have to go back (on RM 620) to the interstate, which is a total wreck, or they have to swing to the west until you finally hit 45," Heiligenstein said. "This would give everyone a straight shot out of those neighborhoods."

Birkman said the county until recently had been counting on money from the Texas Department of Transportation for the interchange. But the agency's emerging money crunch dashed that, she said.

"One day it hit me like a ton of bricks," Birkman said. "It's just a road to a toll road. But what if we toll the road to the toll road?"

The mobility authority, which opened its first road in March, does not have $24 million of spare change sitting around. But the agency has solicited the financial community for proposals about raising $1.5 billion for a number of projects — proposals are due back in March and 11 firms have expressed interest — and the O'Connor toll road financing would be a part of that, Heiligenstein said. Toll revenue, as is typical for turnpikes, would pay back the borrowed money. Weaver said a revenue-sharing deal could be worked out that would allow the county to share in whatever profit the road generates over time.

"The preliminary numbers look very positive that between the two entities (the county and the mobility authority) that we can get this done very quickly," Heiligenstein said.

There is a third entity involved, however: the City of Austin. The city in 2004 did what is called a limited-purpose annexation of the 9.5-square-mile Robinson Ranch, which is in the city's extra-territorial jurisdiction, and will eventually bring the area within Austin's city limits.

The city will have at least some say in what gets built there, and Weaver said Birkman has had past discussions with outgoing Austin City Manager Toby Futrell about a road connecting RM 620 and Texas 45 North. Weaver said previous plans for the area have shown an arterial road cutting across the ranch from RM 620 to Texas 45 North, although the starting point had been further north on RM 620 in previous incarnations.

One further complication: The ranch has a number of caves, which might have rare species in them. Weaver said environmental work on the road is well along and that the county hopes to get federal clearance to begin construction as soon as this fall.

bwear@statesman.com, 445-3698

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