September 6th, 2014
By Carol Cespedes, Fix290 Coalition
An expressway through Oak Hill? Sounds like a great idea, right? Residents of southwest Travis County and beyond have been frustrated for more than a quarter century by traffic congestion on Highways 290/71 West heading out of Austin for the Hill Country. If TxDOT is finally getting ready to fix the problem, who would ever want to complain?
As a twenty-year resident of Windmill Run, one of the neighborhoods locked between the forks of the Y formed by the 290-71 intersection, I surely share the frustration. But as the Department of Transportation generated a fix to the problem, I saw a cure that might be worse than the disease. Plans released to the public in 2005 showed a behemoth elevated highway that dwarfed the scenic Convict Hill bluffs, covered the green corridor along Williamson Creek, wiped out beautiful ancient oak trees, and created a three-level interchange at the Y intersection, creating visual blight and amplifying highway noise across our beautiful residential neighborhood.
Neighborhood folks rose up to complain, and we were joined by activists concerned about water quality and tree preservation as well as the prospect of tolling the major highway leading out of Southwest Austin – because the highway was designated as a toll road, and that in itself created new burdens for the neighborhood. It wasn’t simply a matter of paying the tolls. It was because highways built for tolling take a certain design.
Under Texas law, no existing highway can be tolled without providing an equal number of free lanes. In other words, six tolled lanes needed to be matched by six free lanes making a total of 12 lanes across, a prodigious expanse of concrete through the heart of one of the loveliest corridors to Austin. To function at a financial optimum, the tolled lanes need to be significantly faster and more efficient than the nontolled lanes beside them. In other words the choice is between paying the toll and being stuck in traffic. With entrances to the tolled lanes necessarily limited, local residents are fated to be stuck in traffic with the rest of the toll-avoiding commuters from western suburbs.
Those who refused to accept TxDOT’s plans for an elevated toll road got together and called themselves Fix290. Leadership arose spontaneously – anyone who was willing to hang in and work for the cause without pay. We developed an email list and an online petition signed by more than two thousand individuals. We were endorsed by ten local neighborhood and environmental organizations. Perhaps most important, we didn’t just say “no.” We discovered an alternative concept for building a highway known as a “parkway,” defined in the TxDOT manual as a freeway without frontage roads. Bruce Melton, a professional civil engineer living in our neighborhood, volunteered his time to produce a conceptual drawing to show that a ground level six-lane parkway between the bluffs and the creek could be built without disturbance to the creek or the beautiful heritage oak trees that grew nearby. That drawing became the vision for “The Oak Hill Parkway.”
The movement to build a parkway met stout resistance from TxDOT and highway interests between 2005 and 2007, and in October 2007 the CAMPO (Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization) board voted to approve TxDOT’s plans as part of a toll-funded package. Then two game-changing events occurred. The first was a letter from the Federal Highway Administration informing TxDOT that their 1988 environmental study for the project was no longer valid. The second was the national economic disaster of 2008 that made it impossible to find bond funding for toll bonds. There was no money for the road and the project needed to restart with a proper Environmental Impact Study.
That has been happening over the last two years as a new and more open administration in TxDOT and the CTRMA (Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority) comes back to include the community in the process of planning the future highway. Let’s be clear that this is not the same as that highway widening project now underway on 290 West. The current construction known as “interim improvements” is designed to take care of traffic flow for the next ten years. At some point during this time construction of the final highway will begin. It will shape this community and the region forever, so we must get it right.
At public meetings last year, the project was named “Oak Hill Parkway,” but Fix290 advocates are disappointed to find that designs selected by TxDOT and announced to the public in June still fall short of our goals. From the perspective of neighborhoods near the Y, we have two critical problems to solve:
Preserving the green Gateway to Oak Hill - Alternative A and C deal with the problem of providing both main lanes and frontage road through the pinch point between Williamson Creek and the Convict Hill bluffs by squeezing the creek to the maximum (actually overhanging it in the case of Alternative A) and building one roadway through what is now Freescale property. Alternative C swings the mainlanes north of the creek – but the greenbelt is sandwiched between two highways, which make it problematic for use as a pleasant park or trail area. Further, both alternatives rely on elevation of mainlanes to cross William Cannon that will reach an estimated 25 feet, effectively overwhelming the view of the bluffs and bringing the din of passing traffic to residents at the top of Convict Hill. Alternative F, which was developed by TxDOT with input from Fix290 activists, shows William Cannon bridging over 290 with the lanes of 290 kept at grade level. The creek-bluff pinch is avoided by eliminating the frontage roads.
Connectivity and noise for neighborhoods and business. In Alternatives A and C local drivers will use one-way frontage roads to the point where a U is permitted in order to cross over or under the main lanes when they need to head the other direction. These possible turn around points between the place where the freeway currently ends and Scenic Brook Drive are too few and far between, requiring long detours and denying local residents access to the highway into Austin. Alternative F, on the other hand, proposes two-way frontage roads (think “streets”) whenever possible and offers more points of access to the main lanes. Further, by keeping the highway at or below grade and minimizing elevation at the Y, Alternative F will generate significantly less noise than the 25 foot elevated highway that Alternatives A and C both show as continuing on 71 through the Y to a point near Jack Allen’s, thereby effectively dividing the commercial center of western Oak Hill.
Cost. One more issue needs to be recognized – the financing of construction. We have been down this path at least twice before and seen funding evaporate as the money runs out. One of the powerful arguments for a non-elevated, minimal frontage design is that it is much simpler and therefore less expensive. If this is the case, the possibility that it can be built without tolling increases – especially since Texas Proposition 1 on the November ballot amends the state constitution to allocate rainy day fund money to highway construction provided those highways are not tolled. This is an important argument for the parkway design alternative and an underpinning for the recent Austin City Council recommendation that the ongoing environmental impact study include a “non-elevated and non-tolled parkway design.”
Arguments for one design over another are more complex and technical than can be addressed in a quick newspaper piece. CTRMA has provided images of the parkway concepts on the official project website http://www.oakhillparkway.com while a critique of the designs and proposals for the parkway are posted on the Fix290 website at http://fix290.org.
That is what the fuss is about and the reason that with the support of a resolution passed last week by the Austin City Council we are still urging TxDOT and the CTRMA to do better in helping us achieve our vision of a parkway through Oak Hill.
September 4th, 2014
By Bruce Melton, PE
(Based on official comments to the NEPA process meeting of August 26, 2014 and delivered to TxDOT/CTRMA on September 6, 2014)
On August 21, Austin City Council voted unanimously asking the Texas Department of Transportation and Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (TxDOT/CTRMA) to fairly evaluate a non-elevated and non-tolled parkway for their Federal Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Oak Hill US290/SH71 transportation improvements. This resolution responds to recent TxDOT/CTRMA actions revealing that only elevated frontage road concepts financed through tolling could advance for detailed analysis in the EIS.
Local residents named the project the “Oak Hill Parkway” at one of TxDOT/CTRMA’s first public workshops for the EIS process in the fall of 2012, reflecting their desire for a highway that would protect the original character of Oak Hill and the unique natural environment where Williamson Creek meets the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone adjacent to the Convict Hill Quarry and the last remaining “oaks” in what was once the thriving downtown of Oak Hill.
Over the last two decades, this highway project has required the removal of 26 businesses and a church in this area. In 2007, the Federal Highway Administration required TxDOT to formally update the dated EIS for the project initially completed in 1988.
The Fix 290 Coalition, a group of over 40 organizations and businesses and 2,800 petition signers in Oak Hill, advocates for a more environmentally and community sensitive design than the elevated 12-lane concepts TxDOT has suggested for over 20 years. To do this they propose the use of a classic “parkway” concept that would minimize frontage roads like can be found in the design of MoPac (Loop 1) between Ladybird Lake and RM 2222. The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO), defines a parkway as a “freeway without frontage roads.” Other roads can certainly be called a “parkway,” but in the classic engineering definition of the term, a parkway lacks frontage roads.
The City Council resolution reflects community displeasure at seeing more environmentally and community friendly concepts being dropped from further consideration early this summer by TxDOT/CTRMA. The Resolution cites National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) EIS requirements to “Rigorously explore and objectively evaluate all reasonable alternatives… [and] Devote substantial treatment to each alternative considered in detail…”
History of TxDOT/CTRMA Efforts to Include “All Reasonable Alternatives”
In May 2013, TxDOT released their alternative concepts for this project as per EIS requirements. These alternatives did not include a concept that reflected a “parkway” design and resulted in considerable comments from the community requesting that a parkway alternative be considered for what TxDOT/CTRMA has labelled as the Oak Hill Parkway.
In August 2013, TxDOT/CTRMA began working with Fix290, in what TxDOT/CTRMA has labelled as community design workshops, to add a parkway alternative into the EIS process. What Fix290 suggested was that, what they considered to be the best parts of the other alternatives be combined, and that in areas where businesses had been removed and access could otherwise be provided without frontage roads, that frontage roads in these areas not be included in a design concept. This alternative was labelled as the sixth alphabetically in the series as Alternative F.
In March 2014, TxDOT/CTRMA announced that tolling would be the finance mechanism for this project.
On June 26, 2014 this community design subcommittee work culminated after several iterations of design as officials from TxDOT/CTRMA announced that the “parkway” alternative had been disqualified from further consideration.
After hearing from numerous community residents and Fix290 members, that the decision criteria used to disqualify the parkway alternative was biased, TxDOT/CTRMA decided to perform further evaluations and to reconsider their decision by August 2014.
On August 26, at another community design workshop held coincidentally five days after the unanimous City Council Resolution, TxDOT/CTRMA announced that the decision on a parkway alternative would be delayed even further, until at least the middle of September.
Possible Bias in the Decision Process
The possible bias in the June 26, 2014 decision to disqualify a parkway alternative was evaluated by TxDOT/CTRMA over the summer. Results and implications of this reevaluation were presented at the August 26 community design subcommittee workshop and are summarized below:
Congestion…Eight of the nineteen decision from the June 26, 2014 decision criteria dealt with congestion. After modeling CAMPO traffic projections for the year 2035, TxDOT/CTRMA concluded that a parkway alternative (Alternative F) did not pose significantly different amounts of regional congestion than the two alternatives chosen to continue with the EIS evaluation process on June 26 (Alternatives A and C).
However, this modeling did show a significant increase in congestion on the eastbound lanes of US290 at “Y” (the 290/71 intersection). The TxDOT/CTRMA stated reason for this congestion appears to be unfounded; it was because of the left side entrance ramp inbound from SH71 and the weaving that vehicles had to accomplish to get to the William Cannon exit 500 yards east on US290. When viewing the animation of the modeling, where real-time congestion can be seen like a time lapse satellite movie, the congestion appeared to begin to decrease before this left entrance ramp from SH71. Further observation showed a bottleneck west of the SH71 entrance where three lanes were reduced to two, obviously creating the congestion.
Safety Issue… Modeling was performed to evaluate emergency vehicle access in the case of a complete blockage of the main lanes by comparing emergency vehicle travel times between Alternatives A, C and F. Obviously, where frontage roads are limited, a complete blockage of the main lanes would likely increase emergency vehicle travel time. However, no evaluation of a complete blockage of the frontage roads was performed. In this instance, where Alternative F has 18 access ramps to the main lanes and Alternatives A and C have only 13 and 12 respectively, the alternative with the greater number of access ramps to the unblocked main lanes would have better emergency vehicle access. (Ramps are counted from Scenic Brook to Joe Tanner; Scenic Brook westward is identical across all alternatives.)
More questions remain however. TxDOT/CTRMA did not provide a modeling experiment design, so it is impossible to evaluate “why” emergency vehicle access is worse with Alternative F.
In theory, Alternative F has about 40 percent fewer frontage roads than Alternatives A and C, but half of the frontage roads for alternative F are two-way, whereas all of the frontage roads for Alternative’s A and C are one-way. These two-way frontage roads significantly increase connectivity and by definition, would increase emergency vehicle travel time.
In addition, emergency vehicle access was not compared to the main existing comparable route in the region—MoPac between ladybird Lake and RM2222. This stretch of roadway has no frontage roads at all. A judgment based on a roadway with significantly fewer frontage roads than Alternative F was not attempted.
Due Diligence in Design Evaluation…
Several major areas of the design of Alternative F appear to have been neglected in the standard design iteration process that takes place as a major roadway concept is developed.
The community members that worked with TxDOT to develop alternative F are not high-speed transportation experts. One of their members is civil engineer with 30-years of experience that does include substantial roadway design, but these people are all volunteers and do not have the resources to deal with tens of thousands of dollars of conceptual design iterations.
Using the traditional conceptual design process, when a design flaw is encountered, other alternatives are evaluated to minimize or eliminate the flaw. Several major areas of conflict with the Alternative F concept appear to have been received little if any of this concept design iteration process as discussed below:
Congestion of Alternative F for the Eastbound lanes of US290, relative to the left entrance of US71 and the “Weave” across three lanes of traffic to make the William Cannon exit ramp (discussed in number 1 above): Two alternative solutions to this conceptual design element were not evaluated that include prohibiting the weave to the William Cannon exit with concrete traffic barriers, or having this movement from US71 enter the main lanes from the right.
Safety issues because of complete blockage of the main lanes (from number 2 above): The experimental safety modeling chose a location to completely block the main lanes that was just west of SH 1826 where a frontage road in the Alternative F concept does not exist for about a half mile. This modeling did not evaluate how emergency vehicle access time would change if this short section of frontage road was added back into Alternative F.
William Cannon depressed main lanes:
An elevated roadway creates significantly more noise, light pollution and physical division of community than a road at grade or depressed (excavated below grade). Most of the TxDOT/CTRMA design alternatives show the main lanes of US290 excavated below grade at almost all of the major intersections on US290 west of William Cannon. The reason that TxDOT/CTRMA did not depress US290 at William Cannon was because the road cannot drain by gravity and pumps are required. The Central Texas Region of TxDOT does not have any depressed roadway sections that cannot drain without pumps. But these circumstances can be found in Houston and are feasible and in this instance would allow for all of the suggested alternatives to depress the high speed lanes below grade resulting in substantial noise, light, aesthetic barrier and reduced costs implications.
Removal of businesses east of William Cannon and north of US290:
The initial sketch submitted by the community design subcommittee for this intersection showed no changes to the businesses north of US290 and east of William Cannon, but TxDOT/CTRMA created an access ramp that required the removal of all of these businesses. None of the other alternatives require the removal of these businesses.
Disappearing US290 east access Ramp at Scenic Brook:
The second iteration of Alternative F showed an access ramp from the Scenic Brook overpass on US290 to the main lanes eastbound. This access ramp has disappeared without explanation. If there are design criteria that cannot be met with this access ramp, braided access ramps like were used at two other locations in other alternatives for this project can be used to provide this access.
Old Bee Caves Road two-way access:
the community design subcommittee suggested an access to Old Bee Caves road from the east via the William Cannon intersection, in addition to the access from the west so that two-way traffic could move freely to Ola Bee Caves Road, but without explanation this access has never been included in any of the Alternative F concept iterations.
Very significant misconceptions, are widespread in the Oak Hill community, not only about Alternative F, but about Alternatives A and C as well. These misconceptions include:
- There is not 1.6 miles of continuous elevated roadway with Alt A:
There is actually 1.6 miles of continuously elevated roadway in Alternative C between Joe Tanner Lane and Scenic Brook on SH71 with. Alternative A has SH71 elevated for 0.5 miles from US290 to Scenic Brook.
- The elevated road is 60 to 80 feet high:
In 2003, there were two levels of interchange above grade at the “Y” that would be at least 50 feet above street level. Since then, the costs of excavation in limestone have decreased substantially because of the development of new rock excavation equipment allowing costs to be similar for rock excavation as elevated roadway construction. All of the TxDOT/CTRMA alternative use excavated main lanes depressed below grade to limit the total roadway elevation at any point to about 25 feet.
- Access ramps are not important:
Alternative F has 18 access ramps whereas alternatives A and C have 13 and 12. Access ramps are vitally important to community interconnectedness as well as emergency vehicle operation.
- Concept F does not have frontage roads:
Concept F has a reduction of 40 percent of the total of all possible continuous frontage roads and these reductions are almost exclusively in areas where all of the existing businesses have been removed or where access can be provided through other means. MoPac has no access roads between Ladybird Lake and RM 2222.
- Concept F closes Old Bee Caves Road: The first iteration of Alternative F published by TxDOT/CTRMA culdesaced Old Bee Caves Road. When it was pointed out by the community design subcommittee that the other alternatives did not, and that access to Old Bee Caves could be made similarly, TxDOT/CTRMA changed their alternative F to provide access.
- The direct access ramp to Granada Hills is preferable to a direct access ramp to the hospital:
In the correct version of Alternative F, where there is an on ramp headed east on US290 at Scenic Brook, an off ramp exits at SH1826. This was a management decision by the community design subcommittee that prioritized a direct access to SH1826 at the hospital. All of the TxDOT/CTRMA alternatives have a direct access from the frontage road at Granada Hills to the main lanes of US290 eastbound. Prioritizing the hospital access at SH1826 means that Granada hills residents will have to drive west on a two-lane frontage road for less than a half mile before they can make a direct access to the main lanes of US290 eastbound.
- Alternative F has no access roads west of Scenic Brook:
The one-way frontage roads west of Scenic Brook are identical in all TxDOt alternatives including Alternative F.
- Alternative F will remove Grandmother Oak:
None of the alternatives, including Alternative F remove Grandmother Oak at the northwest corner of US290 and William Cannon, nor any of the other heritage trees in the Becket Grove at this intersection.
- Alternative F is more detrimental to the Joe Tanner Grove than any other possible modifications to Alt A or C:
As drawn, Alternative F saves half or more of the Joe Tanner rove whereas none of the trees are saved with Alternatives A or C. However, TxDOT/CTRMA is aware of this oversight and has promised to evaluate alternative designs that would save as many of the trees as possible. These alternatives would be applicable to all of the proposed concepts including Alterative F.
The costs evaluation used in the June 26 decision process, where Alternative F was 23 to 37 percent less than the other alternatives, has been removed and TxDOT states that costs are not used in the determination of advancement of any particular alternative. This does not appear to be the way that NEPA regulations read:
40 CFR 1502.14 states:
(a) Rigorously explore and objectively evaluate all reasonable alternatives…
(b) Devote substantial treatment to each alternative considered in detail including the proposed action so that reviewers may evaluate their comparative merits.
(c) Include reasonable alternatives not within the jurisdiction of the lead agency.
A “rigorous” evaluation with “substantial treatment to each alternative considered in detail” does not completely disregard costs.
- Community access to the main lanes of US290 and SH71 was not a part of the Phase 2 decision criteria…
As per 40 CFR 1502.14, “Rigorously explore and objectively evaluate all reasonable alternatives” No evaluation of community (local access) travel time difference for local access between the different TxDOT alternatives was made to “objectively evaluate all reasonable alternatives.”
- Noise, Aesthetics and Physical barrier of an elevated roadway…
Noise, aesthetics and the physical barrier of an elevated roadway were not evaluated as per 40 CFR 1502.14.10)
Tolling was not evaluated for costs or congestion on frontage roads as per 40 CFR 1502.14. Unless tolling is disallowed as a finance mechanism, costs due to tolling relative to congestion of frontage roads is a significant consideration as tolling radically increases the traffic component on the frontage roads. As per CAMPO 2035, tolling increases frontage road congestion by 33 percent as drivers avoid paying a toll.)
March 27th, 2008
From The Oak Hill Gazette
Ann Fowler 21.MAR.08
OAK HILL - TxDOT has been hiding information it knew would lead to major delays in completion of the Hwy. 290 project, say members of Fix290 and the Save Our Springs Alliance.
At community forum meetings last summer, TxDOT claimed that the Fix290 parkway proposal would require a new environmental impact study while their design would not. Now it appears TxDOT knew all along that all of the options they were presenting needed an additional environmental impact study.
The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) had requested that the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) complete a Supplement to the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) in part because of the controversy over the project and in part because the original document is 20 years old.
In all likelihood, this means a major delay of at least two years in the completion of the Hwy. 290 project at the “Y” in Oak Hill.
The November 30, 2007 letter from FHWA District Engineer Salvador Deocampo, said, “Currently, on the west side of the project from FM 1826 to Williamson Creek, TxDOT has been working on a reevaluation of the project. The reevaluation was commenced to address changes in design which include consideration of additional alternatives including a reduction in the overall footprint of the segment and to toll the mainlanes. This reevaluation would also assess environmental issues such as endangered species, Mobile Source Air Toxics, noise impacts, etc., not previously studied in the original EIS and approved in the 1988 ROD [Record of Decision]. The project has generated some controversy as is expressed in public statements by the Fix290 neighborhood group, the Save Our Springs Alliance (SOSA) environmental group and several anti-tolling groups.”
The letter was discovered by SOSA when officials made a Freedom of Information request. Andrew Hawkins, staff attorney for SOSA, told the Gazette, “Yes, we (SOSA) sent a FOIA request to FHWA and turned up this letter. Public information laws are a crucial part of the democratic process, as they give people a way to hold our government accountable for its actions, all the more important to take note of during this Sunshine Week. But certainly it should not take a FOIA request to FHWA to find out what’s going with the TxDOT’s schedule and plans for the 290 project.”
March 16-22 is Sunshine Week, a campaign by the media to push for an open and accountable government.
TxDOT did not respond to a request about whether the requested SEIS will delay the project. Said Hawkins, “When TxDOT presented the matrix of new alternatives last year, they estimated 48 months for an SEIS. They have some amount of time allotted in the current schedule for reevaluation that could be used for the SEIS, but we’re still looking at a substantial delay.”
Steve Beers, a member of the Fix290 Coalition that wanted a parkway instead of a multi-level roadway, told the Gazette, “In the mediation sessions [last summer to encourage Oak Hill groups to pick the best design for 290], TxDOT claimed a SEIS for their so-called “parkway” ” Option 5 ” would take 48 months. Since I think they were exaggerating then in order to push their tolled and elevated plan, I think the true reality is closer to one or two years. But who knows? It probably depends on their funding, and the reluctance with which they approach the work. If they drag their feet, or produce biased studies, there may be further delays and possibly even legal trouble.”
Carol Cespedes, spokesperson for Fix290, told the Gazette, “Last summer TxDOT made the claim that the Fix290 parkway proposal would require a new EIS while their design would not. I wonder how much longer people will believe TxDOT’s statements when they are not only mistaken, but try to conceal their mistakes from the public.”
She added, “The highway cannot go to construction without the SEIS, and, as I understand it, the SEIS may take two years. At very least this creates major delay. We wonder how they can be confident about securing private financing when they haven’t finished the environmental impact study. Don’t they need to disclose this detail before bonds are issued?”
Added Bruce Melton, a professional civil engineer who lives in Oak Hill, “This issue is extremely important in that TxDOT has not informed the public of this delay in the project. By not publicly disclosing this delay, in effect, they have kept the FHWA letter hidden.”
Cespedes agreed, saying, “Last summer TxDOT argued that their designs were easier to permit than the Fix290 parkway and claimed they would not need an SEIS. Now we see that TxDOT has known about the SEIS requirement since November, but utterly failed to inform the public or the regional transportation agency, CAMPO [Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization], of this new source of project cost and delay. They kept it hidden even while they prepared to borrow money from Wall Street based on tolling 290.”
Said Hawkins of TxDOT”s failure to release the letter to the public earlier, “It is bad planning on the part of TxDOT, and runs counter to NEPA’s [National Environmental Policy Act] spirit of ongoing, open coordination with the public and governmental entities such as CAMPO. Everyone wants 290 fixed sooner rather than later ” it is hard to see how this will happen in light of TxDOT’s persistent inability to play it straight with the public and CAMPO.”
Cespedes added, “If TxDOT were open and honest with the taxpayers and their elected representatives, they would have disclosed this last year ” but of course they were busy at that time, explaining what happened to that missing $1 billion.”
TxDOT officials admitted to legislators earlier this year that they had substantially less money to spend than anticipated because they had mistakenly counted $1.1 in revenue twice.
Cespedes likened this latest 290 setback to the October 2006 rejection of TxDOT”s Nationwide Permit application for 290 by the Army Corps of Engineers. She said, “There is a d”j”-vu. TxDOT would no doubt have preferred to keep the Nationwide Permit rejection quiet, but it was announced to the CAMPO Board during citizens” comments. TxDOT tried to insist that it really made no difference, but they spent six or seven months redesigning. This is a much more major delay.”
Melton pointed out that in a July 2007 matrix TxDOT handed out at public meetings the EIS reevaluation planned for Option 4 would be 26 months. He said, “TxDOT’s project schedule shows that they are currently in the process of reevaluation of the EIS. TxDOT’s reevaluation was scheduled to be complete about this time next year. Supplementation takes 1-1/2 to 2 years as per Mike Leary of the FHWA Austin Office. The current schedule has one year remaining for EIS reevaluation, so the additional factual delay to the project is 6 months to a year if TxDOT is diligent in their pursuit of the Supplementation. They received this notice from FHWA in November. As of last week, TxDOT still had not issued their FHWA required Notice of Intent (NOI) to perform the SEIS that takes 1-1/2 to 2 years to complete.”
Melton pointed out that the FHWA is asking for an EIS supplementation, which is like a new EIS but is not actually a new EIS. He explained, “FHWA requires for an EIS to be revised for three reasons. If the project boundary changes, if more than two years ” that’s 2 years, not 20 ” elapse since the EIS was approved, or if conditions on the site change enough to warrant reanalyzes. Depending on the depth of the changes, EIS reevaluation could be required. Reevaluation is like a mini supplementation.”
The FHWA letter also stated, “In recent discussions without our office, we considered the issues involved in this project and the areas needing to be addressed in any update to the FEIS. The areas needing more study and consideration include the significant changes in land use (from those anticipated in 1988), air quality issues related to Mobile Source Air Toxics, the change in design to construct and operate a toll facility and continuing controversy on noise issues.”
Melton conducted a noise study last year that concluded, “Using conservative estimates, Oak Hill can easily expect to experience large increases in ambient noise levels due to the planned US 290/ SH 71 project.”
Asked if the FHWA was referring to his noise report, Melton replied, “I would hope that they read my noise report, but in the same breath, I would hope that the analysis of the FHWA, with all of the subjects that needed official review for this project that was approved of two decades ago in 1988, was prompted and wholly dependent upon the diligence of the FHWA to get the job done according to the rules.”
Melton said he did not believe anything suspicious should be read into the FHWA”s request coming after the CAMPO vote to toll 290. “Just a coincidence of timing, I think,” he said.
Said Hawkins, “I’m not sure if the result would have been different, but I definitely think this information would have had an impact. If CAMPO had been aware that TxDOT’s switch from what was considered in the 1988 EIS to an elevated, tollway design would cause a significant delay, they might have been more willing to endorse quicker, less expensive options such as Fix290’s parkway.”
Beers believes the outcome may well have been different had need for an SEIS been known. He said, “I think the TIP [Transportation Improvement Program] vote outcome would have been different w/ CAMPO and Chairman Watson able to see this information. For one thing, since tolling is one of the new conditions to be studied, presumably CAMPO would not have voted to toll 290. It would have been premature to vote to toll US 290 before the studies were completed. For another, the SEIS puts the TxDOT design on somewhat of a level playing field with a parkway design as far as schedule goes ” I believe they both must now be studied for their pros and cons.”
Beers added, “I recall that CAMPO asked TxDOT to study a parkway way back in October of 2006. Now they will have to do this anyway, so why did they drag their feet, waste all our time, and resist so long? They put us in the position of having to come up with detailed blueprints in order to be considered by CAMPO, and that was something a citizens’ group was not in a position to do ” that is, do their job for them.”
Locals believe the parkway plan may still be on the table. Said Melton, “Fix290 will continue to work with the FHWA to assure that the issues in Oak Hill seen by TxDOT as controversial are addressed in the new EIS. We have a wonderful amount of support for the parkway concept in the community. Not only can we meet future CAMPO traffic estimates, but our design concepts are much, much cheaper to build. Our cost estimate, performed by the transportation consultant that did the design analysis for Envision Central Texas, came in at less than $80 million, at the same time that TxDOT’s estimate was climbing above $400 million. Technology today can toll virtually anything with a little black box so, if we absolutely have to, we can continue to fund, build and maintain roads exactly the same as TxDOT with their 12-lane elevated superhighway through the heart of our community. And we get to keep the heart of our community instead of having it paved over with an elevated superhighway like Hwy 183 between Mopac and I35 with a 5-story interchange at the “Y.” Our parkway concept is not like the Southwest Parkway, we use the textbook definition of a parkway which is exactly like Mopac where it has no frontage roads.”
Agreed Cespedes, “We still believe that Highway 290 West could be built more quickly at less cost if TxDOT would rethink the requirement for an elevated six-lane toll road with an equal number of frontage lanes. We have already demonstrated that a parkway has capacity to move traffic through the year 2030 and is also better for neighborhoods and the natural environment. We will continue to remind TxDOT, CAMPO and the CTRMA, believing that someday they will have to take a look at reality ” and change their plans!”
Local activists believe membership in grassroots organizations like Fix290 is worthwhile because they can make a difference. Said Melton, “It’s always worthwhile for citizens to be active in their community, in some cases ” very worthwhile. I don’t really think it’s “Big Government” that’s the problem here. I think it’s “Out-of-control-nobody-accountable Government.” We don’t need all of this extra expense and complication to make our highways work. The vast majority of the country creates transportation systems without access roads, why should we be different and destroy our community?”
Added Hawkins, “The spirit and letter of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) make public involvement a crucial part of the government’s decision-making process. The community should always voice its concerns and preferences to make sure that decision-makers take the required “hard look” at the environmental consequences of their actions. Having said that, I think public controversy is a minor reason among the deeper flaws mentioned in the letter, and such controversy would not have caused a SEIS by itself. The most significant reason, in my mind, is TxDOT’s pursual of an elevated tollway design, which was clearly not considered in the 1988 EIS.”
Beers added, “I think it is always worthwhile for the affected public to speak up and have their voices heard. In the case of the federal highway noise statutes, there is a duty not just to study future noise impacts from the project, and the various options to abate it ” including narrower and less elevated designs ” there is also an affirmative duty to take measures to limit or ‘abate’ the noise.
“For instance, if a new noise study shows that sound walls would be cost-effective to prevent damages to property values and health, they must build them. Conversely, if the road gets built without these noise abatement measures added before the road gets finished, then TxDOT is not under any obligation to add those measures later on, and their present policy is not to do so for already existing roads.
“Neighborhoods along MoPac in West Austin have waited more than 30 years for promised sound walls. There is also a duty under this federal noise law to hold hearings and consult with the affected residents and local officials, which TxDOT has not done.
“I hope that TxDOT does seriously consider a parkway plan. I believe they have a duty under federal law to consider non-tolled and non-elevated options with less community impact on neighborhoods and the environment. Fix 290 does not oppose all tolling necessarily. We have said tolling a managed lane in the middle might be okay as long as most of the other freeway lanes stay free. A managed lane is a carpool lane that allows some tolled single occupant vehicle traffic. But tolling all the main lanes as TxDOT wants to do means under state law you must supply free frontage roads which makes the whole profile twelve lanes wide ” causing all the problems with Williamson Creek, the oaks, etc. Call that a “parkway” or not, those elements are overdue for a real examination and real alternatives. I hope they use this delay productively, rather than frittering away the time w/ yet more manipulative game playing.”
July 17th, 2007
A new report by independent transportation experts shows that the Fix 290 Coalition’s parkway proposal for Highway 290 West in Oak Hill would be tens of millions of dollars less expensive than the elevated toll lanes proposed by TxDOT.
Click here to download the report >> [420k PDF]
The report, by Smart Mobility, Inc., shows that the Fix 290 parkway proposal would cost about half as much as TxDOT’s latest designs.
TxDOT’s plans show construction costs for U.S. Highway 290 West ranging from $121 million to $156 million. Fix 290’s parkway proposal would cost $77 million, according to the new report by Smart Mobility, Inc.
“We now have real numbers showing that a grade-level parkway will be much cheaper to build than TxDOT’s six elevated highway lanes,” says Carol Cespedes, spokesperson for the Fix 290 Coalition. “The parkway we propose is less expensive, less noisy for neighbors, and less damaging to Williamson Creek. We can save the oaks that give Oak Hill its name and save tax dollars at the same time with the Fix 290 parkway.”
Whether Oak Hill will be stuck with TxDOT’s proposed elevated toll roads or the community alternative of a grade-level parkway will be up to CAMPO. CAMPO is the body of local elected officials that determines how to spend federal transportation funds.
Last week, the Fix 290 Coalition released a report concluding that TxDOT’s elevated highway scheme would result in noise levels similar to those at the end of an airport runway.
Now, Fix 290 Coalition is demonstrating that TxDOT’s noisy proposal is also more costly, by tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars. Smart Mobility, Inc., also concluded that the Fix 290 parkway can handle expected increases in traffic volumes on Highway 290 West. TxDOT’s plans have drawn the ire of neighborhoods, businesses, and environmental groups. Over 2,300 people have signed a petition supporting the Fix 290 parkway at www.Fix290.org.