Monday, July 07, 2008

"The tollway to nowhere, courtesy of our commissioners."

Williamson's plans for highway causing small uproar

Officials say they are trying to prepare for expected growth.


By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2008

GEORGETOWN — Adolph and Barbara Supak have plans for the land they live on west of Georgetown, 390 gorgeous, rolling acres in two large parcels tucked between Texas 29 and forks of the San Gabriel River.

At some point, their notion is to sell off some of the valuable land alongside the five-lane highway, a thin strip on the westerly parcel where someone might build stores or a restaurant. But behind that frontage, among the oaks, creeks and stock ponds where generations of Barbara Supak's family ranched and where the Supaks have lived for three decades, the plan is to sustain the Hill Country for their children and grandchildren to enjoy.

Williamson County, anticipating rapid growth from Georgetown to Liberty Hill, also has plans for that area. Big plans.

The county in a few weeks, after the completion of an initial $2.4 million engineering study of potential routes, will announce its preferred path for what would be a six-lane expressway (with up to six frontage road lanes alongside) on the Texas 29 corridor from just west of Georgetown to the Burnet County line a few miles past Liberty Hill. Those 12 potential lanes would require an Interstate 35-sized swath of right of way: 400 feet, more than triple the 120 feet the state owns on Texas 29 now.

Most of the route, if not all of it, will probably follow Texas 29, ballooning out north or south, or north and south, of the current pavement. The county, using money from a $228 million 2006 bond package, would begin buying that additional right of way once Williamson County commissioners make a choice. The county's engineers say 500 acres to 850 acres would be needed for the 400-foot width, at a cost of somewhere between $14 million and $41 million.

The county's intentions have caused what passes for an uproar in the still mostly rural northwestern quadrant of the county. The idea of a massive expressway, probably with tolls, replacing what is a lightly traveled highway is a concept many find outlandish. Especially with gas at $4 a gallon and Americans recalculating the math of long commutes.

Throw in Texas 29 landowners' fears that they'll be forced to sell their property — unfounded, it turns out — and you have the ingredients for a mini-rebellion.

"This is absurd," said Clyde Davis, a Liberty Hill real estate agent who owns several properties fronting Texas 29. "We don't have the money, and we don't have the need. The tollway to nowhere, courtesy of our commissioners."

Texas 29, at its busiest point in the section under study, has less than 16,000 cars a day. But the engineers, looking at the county's explosive growth since 1990 and a Texas 29 corridor with at least 20,000 more homes already approved for construction, see traffic tripling or more by 2035. As for high gas prices, officials say hybrid vehicle technology and cross-county commuting will sustain the market and justify expanding Texas 29.

Williamson County Commissioners Cynthia Long, who represents Liberty Hill and other territory in the western end of the project, and Valerie Covey, whose precinct takes in Georgetown and the Supaks' land, have taken the brunt of this. Long and other supporters of the effort emphasize that construction of the road is probably 15 to 25 years away. But better to buy what undeveloped land they can now, they say, rather than wait until Texas 29 is lined with businesses and subdivisions.

"If we don't do it now, we will not be able to afford to do it later," Long said.

The county will not use its power of eminent domain to force sales, county officials said. In fact, it can't.

On state highways, such as Texas 29, construction projects almost always use some federal transportation dollars. That in turn triggers a rigorous environmental process that includes an official designation of the route by the Federal Highway Administration. Until that occurs, and it is years away in this case, the county can't legally condemn land for the project, said Charlie Crossfield, an attorney who has long overseen Williamson County right of way purchases.

So the route that emerges from the study under way by engineering consultant Chiang, Patel & Yerby Inc. will be what amounts to a preliminary choice. To the extent that Williamson County buys land for the notional expressway, it will be taking a chance that the federal environmental process someday might yield a different route.

Adolph Supak, told that the county can't use eminent domain now, said that news is comforting. But the county's designs on part of his land, he said, will still throw his life into limbo and perhaps hurt the price of his land.

"It's not developable property," said Supak, 63, who commuted to Austin for years when he was assistant superintendent of the Austin State Hospital. "We can't do anything with it."

The county and CP&Y have put together dozens of possible combinations for the route. The section between D.B. Wood Road just west of Georgetown and Ronald Reagan Boulevard (the extension of Parmer Lane in Williamson County), which includes both Supak properties, has four alternatives. All hug the current road, and the one that Supak considers the most likely manages to snag nearly 300 feet from his properties on both sides of Texas 29.

Between Ronald Reagan and Burnet County, a stretch that includes Liberty Hill and its 1,510 residents, there are 16 possibilities. Several depart from Texas 29 and loop north or south around the developed part of the town. The longest — and from listening to the engineers, the most likely — would go north around the Sundance Ranch and Sundance Estates subdivisions and add about two miles to the trip from Georgetown to Burnet County. It would also avoid the necessity of buying out the numerous gas stations and other businesses on Texas 29 through Liberty Hill.

Davis, the Liberty Hill agent, said the timing for the route analysis is terrible. Liberty Hill, he said, is about to finally get sewer service and was set to take off economically. The turmoil set off by the Texas 29 decision is wholly premature and unnecessary, he said.

But Suzy Bates, a real estate agent and retired teacher who owns property on Texas 29 just west of town, said opponents are overreacting. In her lifetime, she has already seen Liberty Hill's "main vein" change from tiny Loop 332, to a two-lane Texas 29 on the outskirts of town, to the current five-lane Texas 29 that is now the de facto business district.

"I'm saying, 'Calm down,' " Bates said. "They're getting all upset when it's not going to happen for 20 or 30 years."

As for the fears of the Supaks and others about not being able to market their Texas 29 frontage before the road expands, she said businesses will still be interested in buying strips of highway land and developing small businesses. Those business owners, she said, will make money and be able to resell the land to the county or the Texas Department of Transportation at a premium when expansion arrives.

"The businesses that would be put there would follow the highway and move back," Bates said.

What will be lost, eventually and inevitably, is at least some measure of what ties longtime residents such as the Supaks to the land: the quiet and a Hill Country life dominated by raggedy wire fences, creeks, cows, family — and family history.

"I was in the hospital a month ago with high blood pressure just thinking about all this," Barbara Supak said. "I can't stand the thought of this happening to our property."; 445-3698

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