Wear: South MoPac lane spat bringing back aquifer war of the 1990s


Brigid Shea, who made her bones locally a quarter century ago as an environmental activist in the Barton Springs battles and is once again an elected official, came to the microphone Thursday well into what became a several-hour Austin City Council hearing about adding toll lanes to South MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1).

“I don’t think anyone is interested in resuming the developer and environmental wars, least of all me,” Shea, now a Travis County commissioner, told the council. “I don’t think this conversation needs to be seen that way.”

And I guess we have to take her at her word.

But the band is back together, the same folks from the front lines with Shea all those years ago. You don’t have to look very hard to see that the South MoPac debate has put some color back into their aging cheeks.

A familiar cast is on the other side as well, based on the testimony the other night. Representatives from the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and the Real Estate Council of Austin spoke for adding the toll lanes to South MoPac.

All of this was predictable, of course, when the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority several years ago proposed the South MoPac expansion between Lady Bird Lake and Slaughter Lane. Virtually all of that eight-mile run would be over the recharge zone of the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer. More lanes on South MoPac potentially means more pollution going into that aquifer — partly from the cars themselves but mostly from development facilitated by better transportation.

I remember seeing the proposal sometime around 2009, and virtually my first thought was: Bill Bunch and the Save Our Springs Alliance aren’t going to take this one lying down.

Then the thing percolated along surprisingly peacefully for years. The proposed addition of a toll lane to each side was put in the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s long-term transportation plan five years ago with little or no sand being kicked up. Even in late 2013, when the mobility authority changed its preferred plan to add two lanes on each side and began an environmental impact study, all remained quiet on the southwestern front.

Then in February, the mobility authority released artist’s renderings of how it proposed to connect one of the toll lanes on each side to downtown: flyover bridges that would begin south of Lady Bird Lake, reach a height of 25 feet above the existing lanes and then, north of the lake, bend to the east to settle onto West Cesar Chavez Street.

Perhaps it was only a coincidence that Shea, out of office and mostly out of the public eye since leaving the City Council in 1996, had been a commissioner for a few weeks at that point. But, at any rate, the South MoPac project was quiet no longer.

Shea and Bunch, who is executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, have since led the charge to eliminate the flyovers and scale back the toll lanes. Shea, as she did Thursday, argues against having “Lexus lanes,” even though generating toll revenue is probably the one way to get the project financed and built.

The occasion for last week’s council discussion was a proposed resolution calling on the CAMPO board, when it approves the 2040 long-range transportation plan Monday evening, to amend it to say that South MoPac would have one added toll lane on each side, not two. Ultimately, the council on Thursday, at the recommendation of Mayor Steve Adler, softened its resolution to urge CAMPO to say in the plan that South MoPac would have “not to exceed” four added toll lanes. The scaled-back resolution passed 9-2.

I guess there’s a meaningful distinction in there somewhere.

The reality is that the 20-member CAMPO board, dominated by suburban and rural representatives (the city of Austin has just four members on the board) almost surely will approve a version allowing four lanes for South MoPac.

The flyovers, on the other hand, will probably end up on the engineers’ cutting room floor. Mobility authority officials seemed to have taken to heart the community message, coming from a lot of people aside from Shea and Bunch, that having those added structures rising above the lake, the hike-and-bike trail and nearby Austin High School isn’t a good idea.

They’re looking for an alternative way to get people from the northbound toll lanes, located in the center of the road near the median, over to the right and to West Cesar Chavez. Getting downtowners seamlessly to the southbound toll lanes in the evening will be an even harder trick. But the authority almost surely will settle on a different design as the environmental study comes to a close later this year.

Two toll lanes on each side, however, will probably be in the final design. Having two lanes rather than one will provide the most congestion relief right off the bat for crowded South MoPac, and, because the mobility authority plans to have variable toll rates tied to congestion levels in the express lanes, it would keep the tolls lower than would be the case with just one lane a side.

Over time, having two lanes will, obviously, provide more capacity for the road as Austin’s population grows (CAMPO staffers predict 4.1 million people in Central Texas by 2040) and be cheaper in the long run to build than doing one now and another later. And, unlike north of the river, there is room for two lanes on each side.


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