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Texas 45 toll road has state approval
Harsh criticism of Central Texas planning accompanies decision
By Kelly Daniel
American-Statesman Staff
Friday, December 14, 2001

A potential toll road in southern Travis County won approval Thursday from the state Transportation Commission, which used the occasion to rebuke Central Texas for its transportation decisions. Commissioners approved Texas 45 South, a project pursued by a private group led by developer Gary Bradley that could link Interstate 35 and MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1). That connection is opposed by Austin and Travis County leaders and neighborhoods, as well as a few in northern Hays County.

As they approved the project, the three commissioners spoke at length of their frustration with Central Texas, calling into question recent decisions about MoPac, the planned Texas 130 and the southern toll road. "Quit changing the rules," said Commissioner Robert Nichols, irritated by the region's moves to change the times when portions of Texas 45 South may be built.

The reprimands follow several months of increasingly rocky relations between the state and Central Texas as Austin neighborhoods, transportation planners and politicians fought over how to improve MoPac. Regions with good relations with the state stand a better chance of getting money for projects. Austin's reputation before the commission was dismal even five years ago -- Central Texas didn't get any state money for transportation projects in 1996 -- but the region had steadily improved its standing. In September, however, the commissioners suddenly and pointedly withdrew $10.5 million earmarked for U.S. 183, and in November they grew frustrated with local officials over Texas 45 South.

On Thursday, even as they reinstated the U.S. 183 money, the commissioners grew more blunt. No one's interested in harming quality of life in Central Texas, Commissioner Ric Williamson said. "But, damn it, somebody's got to say it: The indecision, the confusion, the constant changing of direction and constant permutations of Central Texas politics as regards state transportation issues has just become untenable," he said. "We have a responsibility for solving safety, congestion and mobility matters on our state system," Williamson added. "And, like it or not, MoPac is part of the state system. It's not West Austin Boulevard."

State Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, was not at Thursday's meeting and learned of the comments from a reporter. It was the first time in more than a decade, he said, that none of the commissioners called him before speaking negatively about Central Texas. "For him to use the word 'damn' or 'damn it' about Central Texas, I think, may be a little premature," Barrientos said when Williamson's comment was read to him. Barrientos, who is chairman of a regional transportation group responsible for many changes that drew the commission's ire, said he will contact the three men "and smooth over any concerns they might have." "I'm optimistic. I don't think this thing is some kind of terrible obstacle that has come up," Barrientos said. "I just think we need better communication."

As with education, the issue of local control is a sticky one for transportation, which competes for federal and state money for new projects. With the state able to pay for just 36 percent of the projects it knows it needs, fierce competition is the norm -- with bickering and indecisive regions apt to lose money to cities that present a unified approach. Austin got $19.2 million this year from the commission for projects such as the U.S.183 work to improve flow to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Meanwhile, Dallas received $45.4 million, and Houston received $68.5 million.

The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, which decides how to spend state and federal transportation money locally, will vote in February to recommend when portions of Texas 45 South should be built "The citizens of Austin are also state taxpayers. And they should have a say on a highway going through their neighborhood," said Daryl Slusher, an Austin City Council and CAMPO member. "I'll continue to work on that relationship (with the state). But I represent the people of Austin."

Texas 45 South plans call for a 10-mile, $120 million project, of which the state will pay no more than $17 million. Thursday's vote allows a final agreement to be signed when it's worked out -- four to six weeks from now -- without further approval. "At this point . . . I believe we have got a clear signal to go," Bradley said. "I think it would be detrimental to everybody in this part of Central Texas to make an issue of it after TxDOT has spoken so clearly."

Texas 130 also was invoked in the commission's complaints Thursday, with Chairman John Johnson lamenting years of delay over its route and paying for the land needed. "These tangential issues keep arising and keep delaying 130 and delaying 130 (so) that we have lost control on when this project actually is going to get done," Johnson said.

State Rep. Ann Kitchen, D-Austin, who serves on CAMPO, said the region is merely trying to be responsible with all its projects. "I don't understand where this criticism is coming from," she said. "We are moving to address our transportation crisis as quickly as possible. But we also know that we can do that in a way that still protects our neighborhoods and listens to the community." Central Texas does have another option, Williamson noted several times Thursday: It could withdraw its highways from the state's responsibility and set up its own governing body. Such regional mobility authorities, allowed by new Texas constitutional amendments, give groups the ability to issue bonds to pay for roads. "I would be very open to a concept like that," Slusher said, though he cautioned it would need more deliberation.

One Austin project easily won approval, as the commission agreed to a $4.9 million construction contract to improve Koenig Lane. Ryan-O Excavation Inc. will add medians and left-turn lanes from Lamar Boulevard to just east of Airport Boulevard, a segment also called Spur 69. You may contact Kelly Daniel at kdaniel@statesman.com or 445-3618.

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