Tollway extension could speed development, slow Austin traffic

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By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM

The project to extend the 183A Toll Road up to Highway 29 would bring explosive development to Liberty Hill, say the tollway’s managers and local officials.

But it would also exacerbate the very traffic problems it was supposed to alleviate, warns Austin City Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, the newest member of the regional transportation planning board.

The two ideas are by no means exclusive.

Currently, the 183A Toll Road is an 11.6 mile freeway running up from RM 620 in northwest Austin to an intersection with U.S. Highway 183 near Leander. It is managed by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority.

The extension, the third phase in a three-phase plan, would draw the road up northward along 183 to its intersection with State Highway 29, inside the city limits of Liberty Hill.

Non-tolled portions would be unaffected, and frontage roads for the tollway already exist.

At the beginning of last week, the project was added to the 2017-2020 planning schedule for the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, which is tasked with overseeing transportation projects for the greater Austin area. CAMPO’s 19-member board is drawn from state, regional and local officials.

Flannigan is one of the newest members of the CAMPO board, after having taken office as Austin’s Council Member representing District 6.

The district is Austin’s most northwest, and includes the entire Williamson County portion of the city.

Before his current position, Flannigan was known as the co-founder of the Northwest Austin Coalition, a community advocacy group whose focus, among other local issues, includes the area’s notorious traffic congestion.

In February, numbers from the transportation analysis INRIX showed Austin as the 13th worst traffic-congested city in the United States and 42nd worst in the world.

Flannigan spoke to The Independent about his concerns with the 183A extensions, and metropolitan-area highways in general, at an open forum for his constituents last week.

“It is my belief, and the belief of many of my colleagues in Austin, that you cannot pave your way to congestion relief,” he said. “That belief is not shared by the state legislature.”

Flannigan said that the way that belief translates into state funding, combined with an over-representation of rural areas in CAMPO, results in “rural transportation projects that ultimately end up contributing to congestion, as opposed to looking at a wider diversity of options for these areas.”

He continued, “what we saw happen in Houston with the Katy Freeway is that expanded highways end up creating more traffic after the first five or so years. Inevitably, with more economic development comes more cars.”

In 2004, the American Highway Users Alliance called the Katy Freeway the second worst bottleneck in the country.

By 2011, projects had widened the road to 23 lanes. Three years later, morning and evening travel times had increased by 30 and 55 percent respectively, according to the city’s own traffic data.

So far, comparable increases have not yet been seen in 183A’s existing roadway, which was first built in 2007 and later extended in 2012.

Williamson County Commissioner Cynthia Long, who has served on the CAMPO board since 2007, said the 183A tollway has improved commuter times, and reduced traffic on Highway 183.

Long represents Liberty Hill on the Commissioners Court.

“Whether you like toll roads or not,” she said, “for those willing to pay, it makes it faster for them, and for those who don’t want to pay, it gets some off the road.”

A 2012 traffic study from the Mobile Authority said that average travel times for 183A measure less than half of a comparable trip on Highway 183, clocking in at just under nine minutes.

The study, now five years old, also showed an average of roughly 10,000 cars passing through the stretch of Highway 183 that the new extension would cover.

Director of External Affairs Dee Anne Heath said a large part of the Mobile Authority’s mission is to “make sure we provide good, reliable transportation and mobility for people living in this area needing to go downtown.”

But improved mobility is not the only purpose for the extension, she said.

She continued that the economic development along the tollway’s first two phases, which ran up to Cedar Park and Leander respectively, has been “tremendous.”

Long agreed with the assessment.

“For an economic perspective, just take a look at what happened in Cedar Park,” she said. “The last number I heard for the amount of dollars invested in the 183A and (the FM) 1431 node was close to a billion.”

Similarly, a 2015-2016 report from the Mobile Authority attributes the tollway’s extension to Leander’s growth, which it marks by the increase in single-family lots approved by the government, from 390 homes in 2010 to 13,425 by 2014.

Relatedly, it also quotes Leander’s Economic Development Manager Eric Zeno as saying, “183A is the last road not congested into Austin”.

Long said that she would expect this kind of development to continue northward. Liberty Hill officials are anticipating as much.

In addition to the extension’s promise in attracting new residents and businesses, Liberty Hill City Administrator Greg Boatright said that the increased access to the airport alone would be a “major benefit.”

He added that the extension’s existing frontage roads have already had a major impact.

“We’ll utilize everything that we have to influence them to build it sooner rather than later,” he said.

City Planner Sally McFeron said that the extension will be one subject of discussion at a meeting on May 31st that she has with Williamson County and CP&Y, the firm contracted to help the city develop its transportation plan.

Currently, the Mobility Authority is waiting to hear results from an environmental impact study that began after the organization authorized work on the project in November 2016. Senior Project Manager Oscar Solis said that they expect to receive the study results by mid-2018, and that if no significant impacts are found, for construction on the extension to begin around late 2019.

Before then, however, Solis said that there will be a public hearing toward the end of this year. They plan to begin reaching out to local groups and neighborhoods by late summer or early fall.

Waylon@LHIndependent.com

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