CAMPO Board Approves Sizable Cost Increase for 183

Feb 9, 2016

From the Austin Monitor: The cost of a large expansion of U.S. Highway 183 in Northwest Austin officially nearly tripled on Monday night.

At its monthly meeting, the Transportation Policy Board of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization voted to amend its long-range plan to increase the price of the 183 North Mobility Project from $225.7 million to $650 million.

The original price tag was included in the CAMPO 2040 plan that was approved last May. Since then, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, which will build the 183 North Mobility Project, asked to refine the cost based on new details that emerged during the ongoing planning process.

The project will add two new tolled lanes in each direction on U.S. 183 from North MoPac all the way up to State Highway 45. In that same section of highway, where there are now only three lanes each way, the project will also add a fourth, non-tolled lane.

CTRMA officials said that the public input process led to the addition of new features to the project, which accounts for a substantial part of the cost increase.

Several activists spoke at the meeting to urge the CAMPO board to reject the amendment. Bill Bunch of the Save Our Springs Alliance and Keep Mopac Local criticized the board for not giving the issue adequate scrutiny.

“The RMA board needs to get the message that it’s time to wake up and not to be asleep at the switch and to take accountability for what their staff is doing,” Bunch said.

Representatives from the Real Estate Council of Austin, the Greater Austin Asian Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce offered support for the project regardless of the present price tag.

Ultimately, however, the topic of the project’s cost fell to the wayside during a lengthy discussion among the board. City Council Member Ann Kitchen, who was filling in for Council Member Delia Garza, voiced interest in adding language that would keep open the possibility of improved bicycle and pedestrian facilities along the project’s corridor. Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt expressed vigorous support for that suggestion.

Eckhardt spoke of an “assumption based on the idea that CTRMA will only ever use toll revenue for toll projects. I think we need to evolve beyond that positioning.”

She added, “We are looking at a 200-percent increase in the cost of the project to add additional vehicular infrastructure. I don’t think that it is at all unusual that we would also look at the project for the most robust multimodal design we could get.”

Citing safety concerns of encouraging cyclists to ride along a busy access road, CAMPO staff pointed to the existing bike and pedestrian infrastructure along Jollyville Road and Pond Springs Road, which run parallel to U.S. 183, as a sufficient substitute.

Eckhardt and Kitchen attempted to include potential upgrades to those facilities in the revised plan, but concerns that that language could delay the project – expressed by members of the board from Williamson County – prevailed, and the idea was voted down.

In the end, the motion from Williamson County Commissioner Cynthia Long to approve the amended project plan as recommended by CAMPO staff passed with only Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea voting in opposition.

Afterward, Miller Nuttle of Bike Austin told the Austin Monitor, “It’s frustrating that CAMPO isn’t putting the safety of Central Texans first. The reality is that people are going to ride bikes on 183 North because there are so many destinations on that corridor.”