By Kelly Daniel
Financial problems halt work on MoPac
CAMPO, neighborhood activists curious about timing of state's decision.
Sunday, February 10, 2002
All of a sudden, years of work and dueling over MoPac Boulevard have screeched to a halt. Now the argument is about why. The Texas Department of Transportation is indefinitely postponing a plan to add lanes to MoPac (Loop 1), citing financial problems. Nothing is likely to happen this year, and the state's Austin engineer won't say definitely that work will proceed in the future.
The state was on the verge of beginning several years of intensive environmental studies on adding two or four high-occupancy-vehicle lanes to MoPac and U.S. 183. Construction was far off, 2008 at the earliest, and the federally required studies had been stalled since March 2001 as neighborhoods and regional transportation planners argued with the state about how best to proceed. But the Transportation Department was going to get the approval it needed as soon as it agreed in writing to study several ideas from neighborhoods and the planners, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. One idea was that CAMPO, which decides how to spend federal transportation dollars locally, would be more involved than is usual in the state's work. Barely two months after that December agreement, state transportation officials quietly announced that they no longer had the money to continue.
"It came out of the blue," said state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, who chairs CAMPO. The suddenness of the reversal is raising questions from Barrientos, other CAMPO members and neighborhood activists as to the state's motive. The Transportation Department is halting all projects that are in the early designing and planning stages, such as the MoPac-U.S. 183 work, and slowing down projects that already have construction contracts. Those delays will last through the current fiscal year, which will end Aug. 31. The state has spent $5 million on the MoPac-U.S. 183 project so far, and it would need more than $1 million through the next seven months to proceed with the environmental studies. "This is more of a cash flow problem than anything else," said Bill Garbade, the Austin district engineer. None of this was mentioned in December, when CAMPO struggled through hours of negotiations and approved the compromise to let the state proceed as soon as the written agreement was in hand. Once the community secured its involvement, the project was yanked, said Sid Covington, an Old Enfield neighborhood leader who served on a CAMPO committee trying to alter the MoPac plan. "My gut feeling is it's dead forever," Covington said. "I don't think as long as Garbade is here they'll bring it back up."
The December agreement came after nine months of arduous debates and at times inventive strategies about MoPac. Neighborhoods were incensed that the state's plan meant bulldozing hundreds of homes. But neighborhood leaders also played a key role in keeping the project moving ahead, saying MoPac does need help. The Transportation Department wanted to study HOV lanes on MoPac from U.S. 290 West to Parmer Lane and on U.S. 183 from Lakeline Boulevard to MoPac. HOV lanes require at least two people per vehicle. Those added lanes would be elevated, be lowered below ground or be alongside current lanes. The state also suggested changing some ramps and intersections. More than 900 people packed a CAMPO hearing to object to the state's plan. CAMPO then started trying to alter the state's plan. Those changes included not elevating lanes, putting two HOV lanes either adjacent to regular lanes or lower, closing the Westover Road ramps and reducing the speed limit to 55 mph, among other suggestions.
"We have all worked really hard with MoPac to go forward in a way that protects the neighborhoods," said state Rep. Ann Kitchen, D-Austin, who serves on CAMPO. "To be told now we don't have the funds to do it is really a bad situation." Barrientos questioned several state transportation officials after their announcement, during what was expected to be a routine briefing on the federal environmental study process. Unsatisfied, he will ask the state to explain further, in writing, he says. Garbade, who suggested in December that the state relinquish MoPac to the City of Austin and let the city do whatever it wanted, was increasingly frustrated with CAMPO's methods, complaining several times that none of the group's ideas was new or improved on the state's work. He never denied outright that CAMPO's increased involvement played a role in the state's decision. Instead, he noted that the state didn't have a cash problem back in April, when it first asked for CAMPO's approval. The news doesn't get any better. President Bush's budget, sent to Congress this week, includes a $9 billion drop in federal highway funds, which might translate into $600 million less for Texas. If those numbers hold, the delays will stretch even longer. CAMPO will meet Monday and will receive an update about the MoPac situation. One thing the 21 members won't hear is a promise that the project will resurface. "I can't guarantee anything," Garbade said.
Residents whose houses were endangered by the state's original MoPac plan were naturally happy to hear the project is in limbo. "That is fabulous news," said Jeannie Perales Hall, whose Newfield Lane home stood to be destroyed. "It's good to hear that all our efforts are paying off." But the MoPac project wasn't a typical not-in-our-backyard fight. Several West Austin neighborhoods agreed MoPac needs help, as long as homes are protected, and worked to find an answer. Halting the project has therefore created a rare situation where Austin residents and politicians have expressed more disappointment than traffic engineers about a stalled highway project. "It's a shame," Kitchen said. "It's a bad situation." You may contact Kelly Daniel at firstname.lastname@example.org or 445-3618.
No moving on MoPac
Recent events involving MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1):
Fall 2000: Transportation Department begins public meetings to explain ideas for improving MoPac and U.S. 183. Those ideas include bulldozing hundreds of homes to widen MoPac or to add elevated high-occupancy-vehicle lanes and revamping interchanges. At neighborhoods' request, state adds idea of lowering HOV lanes.
March 2001: Transportation Department asks regional transportation group Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization to approve starting environmental studies on MoPac.
April 2001: More than 900 people attend CAMPO public hearing about the state's MoPac plan. Only a handful speak in favor.
June 2001: CAMPO forms its own committee to suggest ideas to improve MoPac but protect neighborhoods.
September 2001: Seven outside experts hired by CAMPO and the City of Austin study MoPac situation for a week. Their recommendations include closing the Westover ramps, lowering the speed limit, opening a commuter rail line along MoPac and adding two HOV lanes.
December 2001: CAMPO agrees to let the Transportation Department begin environmental work as soon as the state agrees in writing to study the new options as well.
February 2002: Transportation Department officials, citing cash flow problems, say MoPac work is on hold for the foreseeable