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Separating ‘road’ from rail in Austin bond plan

As I truly hope you’ve heard, the Austin City Council on Aug. 7 probably will vote to call a $1 billion transportation bond election, to be held Nov. 4, asking us simultaneously (which is an issue all by itself) for $600 million for a light rail line and $400 million for “roads.”

Why put roads in quotation marks?

Because at least $50 million of the so-called road money would be spent to benefit light rail.

And remember, the only reason this bond proposal has any road spending at all is that business interests pretty much demanded it — at a 60-40 ratio — in return for their money and active support of the light rail proposal. They might have to be satisfied with something like a third instead.

Start with what the city, in its “2014 Austin Strategic Mobility Plan,” calls the “U.S. 183/Riverside interchange.” Wait, some of you might be saying, Riverside Drive intersects with U.S. 183?

Yes, it does. Riverside continues east from its major confluence with Texas 71, cutting a gentle curve through the smallish MetroCenter development of hotels and restaurants. It empties out onto U.S. 183 at a decidedly quiet spot on the road not far south of where Texas 71 passes over U.S. 183. I have made that turn many times, going to and from football officiating assignments down Lockhart and Luling way. I assure you it has no traffic congestion. The Texas Department of Transportation said that in the year 2046 — 32 years from now — at rush hour we could expect 443 vehicles an hour to attempt to turn from East Riverside onto U.S. 183.

Nonetheless, the city proposes spending $34 million (almost exactly what TxDOT just paid for a massively larger project nearby at Texas 71 and Riverside) on a “grade separated overpass and interchange” at this pastoral little place. Why? The overpass, the city plan says, “would remove turn conflicts at the existing intersection (should any ever occur — my words, not theirs) and provide structure for a future Urban Rail extension to ABIA.”

The city, TxDOT officials said, requested the overpass.

Summing up: a wider-than-normal overpass to solve a nonexistent traffic problem while providing a way to get a notional light rail line up and over U.S. 183. For those of you reading this on your cellphone while waiting in a long line of cars stacked up behind lights on Loop 360 or RM 620, hey, stop pounding the steering wheel and keep your eyes on the road. You never know when that car in front of you might move.

Then there’s the $81.5 million for Texas 71 “direct connectors to” Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

You probably know direct connectors by their street name: flyovers. The map in the city plan includes only one such bridge, going from northbound Presidential Boulevard (the main exit from the airport) to westbound Texas 71.

A flyover, at least based on recent experience, does not cost $81 million — not even close. The city and TxDOT about four years ago paid $8.4 million to build a couple of them at South MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) and U.S. 290. Yes, that was at lower Great Recession-era prices, and both already had lead-in ramps sitting there waiting from a long-ago construction project.

TxDOT officials said the single flyover out of the airport probably would cost almost $35 million, almost $24 million for construction and about $10.6 million for right of way because the flyover would tower over what is now some private property north of Texas 71. That construction cost is about 460 percent more than what those MoPac/U.S. 290 flyovers cost.

Another $45.1 million would build some bridges from U.S. 183 and an improved eastbound access road alongside Texas 71 eastbound, including a frontage road overpass at Spirit of Texas Drive. All of this is intended to ease access from Central Austin to the airport entrance.

That $45.1 million includes $10.4 million for right of way. But the city owns all the land along the eastbound lanes of Texas 71 and presumably would not be paying itself for use of the land. So that money would be available for other spending.

Like, for instance, light rail?

The city plan says this project would also include “constructing portions of track bed, structures and drainage necessary for a future Urban Rail extension.” That added section of the proposed light rail from its end point at East Riverside and Grove drives could be built, the report says, “with minimal additional costs.” In addition, part of the funds would go to a feasibility analysis of extending the light rail to the airport.

Somehow or another, all of this would be built or done with the mere $1.7 million remaining in the $81.5 million. That unused right of way money might come in handy.

It’s not clear when having a flyover bridge out of the airport became a regional transportation priority. I go to the airport fairly often, and I can’t remember a time when, while exiting the airport, I’ve had to wait more than one cycle of the signal light at the Texas 71 frontage road. Central Texas has a lot of traffic problems. Getting out of the airport really isn’t one of them.

Neither of these projects, by the way, is in Central Texas’ long-range transportation plan because, TxDOT said last week, they are considered “operational.”

But wait, there’s more. The $400 million also includes $44.5 million for eight “corridor development and preliminary engineering” studies. Most of that money would go to devising traffic solutions for Loop 360, RM 620, RM 2222, Parmer Lane and RM 1826. But it also includes $8.5 million to look at “high capacity transit” in the Lamar Boulevard corridor, at Mueller, in the Seaholm power plant area, and in South and Southwest Austin.

Add all that up and you have something close to $50 million of the “road” spending that, really, is for future rail or other forms of transit. So when you hear over the next few months that the city’s $1 billion bond election includes $400 million for roads, take it with a couple of pinches of salt.

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