May 4, 2007
When Gary Farmer asked a group of South Austin businesspeople at a recent Take On Traffic luncheon how many had used a car pool to drive to work that day, only two hands went up. When Farmer, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce’s Take On Traffic chairman, asked how many had driven by themselves, most of the room sheepishly raised their hands. More than 8,000 more cars have started using Central Texas roads in 2007, Farmer and others estimate, and that number will undoubtedly climb. Moreover, Farmer says funding hasn’t kept up with demand. “We have a critical shortage of funds necessary to build out a comprehensive transportation system in Central Texas,” Farmer says. “If the legislature were to give us certain tools like [an increased] sales tax or gas tax then we would have additional tools to look at.”When the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization approved a series of proposed road expansions with tolled lanes as a funding mechanism into its transportation improvement plan, it looked like toll roads would play a definite role in the expansion of Central Texas transportation. Now that picture is starting to change as CAMPO leadership and Texas Department of Transportation officials say Phase 2 of its long-range road plan will not be reincarnated for another vote. Instead, CAMPO and TxDOT will consider the roads that once made up the Phase 2 package on an individual basis, Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, says. That means that while tolling is still an option for financing the proposed road expansions, it’s not a given as it once was under the Phase 2 plan. Watson, chairman of CAMPO, says he worries that looking at the roads as a package means focusing more on how much money can be collected in tolls, instead of analyzing the details of each road and its capacity demands. “It’s not about the old Phase 2 toll plans,” Watson says. “It’s about what we need. I’m trying to bring us back so we can ultimately get to a comprehensive transportation system.”Watson says tolling isn’t off the table, but that other sources of funding, including an increased gas tax or property tax, will be considered. The proposed Phase 2 included expansions to sections of U.S. Highway 183, State Highway 71, U.S. Highway 290 in both East and Southwest Austin, and the proposed State Highway 45 Southwest. TxDOT District Engineer Bob Daigh says approaching the roads individually will allow factors such as safety and environmental concerns to get more consideration. Some local leaders have expressed frustration with the slow analytical approach to Central Texas’ roads. Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, says he supports considering alternative funding mechanisms for the former Phase 2 roads, but adds the projects still need to be done sooner rather than later. “If people want to wait 15 years to get the transportation infrastructure we so desperately need, then we can rely on the old way of doing business,” Farmer says. “At some point in time, this community will have to make a choice.”Watson says he doesn’t want to set a timeline for when CAMPO will consider and vote on a funding source for the former Phase 2 toll roads, but does say that once the legislative session is over, the organization will start to move more aggressively on a transportation plan.