- By Ben Wear American-Statesman Staff
The terraces, each of them buttressed with short walls of rough-hewn, light-brown concrete blocks, first popped up along North MoPac Boulevard about halfway through the four years of toll lane construction, seeming like future homes for some sort of ornamental vegetation.
Even now, with the toll lanes open and the only meaningful construction (mostly of sound walls) going on south of RM 2222, the scattered terraces — there are at least 47, according to my 60 mph count — are sitting there dormant. Drivers, responding to our Austin Answered feature, naturally have wondered what’s up.
“Why the multiple ‘flower beds’ at most overpasses along MoPac?” reader Rick Cloud asked. “How much did they cost? Who will maintain them (already weeds)?”
Another person suggested planting wildflowers, such as the bluebonnets that used to coat MoPac’s westerly slopes in the spring before toll construction began in late 2013. Maybe they’ll make a comeback now that the dust has settled. But that’s not what is going to be planted in those terraces.
As it happens, when I talked to Steve Pustelnyk with the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority — dubbed “MoPac Man” by the agency back in happier times, before the toll project took so long — he told me that MoPac contractor CH2M as early as this week will begin planting trees in those terraces. Each terrace will get at least one tree, he said.
What sort of trees? Live oaks, Texas red oaks and palo verde, he said.
For those of you who, like me, never got around to taking that botany elective in college, that last type is a generally low-slung tree with a greenish trunk (thus the name, which is Spanish for “green stick”) and yellow or blue-green leaves. All three of those MoPac-to-be trees are native varieties, of course, which is good because none of the terraces are irrigated. The saplings will have to survive on whatever water falls from the sky.
As for the cost, the terraces and trees were part of the original catch-all contract between the mobility authority and CH2M. As I’ve written before, that contract was originally $136 million and, for various reasons related to the delay and to avoid lawsuits, was amended upward last year to just under $160 million. But the contractor said the work actually cost it at least $375 million, and long ago officially wrote off most of that huge loss.
So, whatever the terraces and trees cost, the mobility authority got them at a big discount, it appears.
While I have you …
Last week in this space, I analyzed what was up — or, really, not up — with President Donald Trump’s indefatigably promoted (but haltingly pursued) $1 trillion infrastructure plan. Or $1.7 trillion plan, the upgraded figure he threw out last month to U.S. mayors gathered in Washington. The administration teased that the plan would get a meaningful slice of Trump’s State of the Union speech last Tuesday.
I predicted it would instead make only a cameo, which turned out to be the case. About halfway through the 80-minute address, Trump devoted 133 words to infrastructure. He said he wanted both parties “to come together to give us the safe, fast, reliable and modern infrastructure our economy needs and our people deserve.”
Note that such a bill has to be bipartisan, because you need 60 votes in the Senate to avoid a filibuster and there are only 51 Republicans (50 for now, with Sen. John McCain fighting cancer).
You won’t be surprised to hear that Trump, speaking to Congress just a few days after that meeting with the mayors, lobbed out yet another figure for the infrastructure plan: $1.5 trillion.
Whatever. The key figure is how much federal funding would go into it, because the administration envisions doing at least 80 percent of it using money from local or state governments, or from the private sector. Trump, notably, did not mention a number for federal spending.
Trump talked about building “gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways and waterways across our land.” Not sure about the distinction between roads and highways, but, OK. But state and local governments don’t exactly have a trillion or so dollars sitting around handy, and private investors generally want to put their money only in things that make a profit. Congress will need to have some tough discussions about the level of new federal dollars for infrastructure and tax incentives for potential private partners.
Washington has been consumed since the speech with the Nunes memo and the future of the FBI and Justice Department, and the government could shut down again in a few more days absent a grand bargain on immigration. Look for infrastructure to reassume its position on the back burner.
Speaking of gleaming new roads …
Well, at least, a heaving new road: the part of Texas 130 south of Mustang Ridge that was operated by a Spanish toll road company until the project went bankrupt in 2016. The problem, of course, was too much debt and too little traffic once the road opened in late 2012.
Investors who funded that project, which Cintra and its partners built under a 50-year lease with the Texas Department of Transportation, took over those 40 miles of tollway last year and are in the middle of a $60 million upgrade (because of the heaving pavement). The new operator last week touted truck traffic that in 2017 increased for the fourth year in a row.
Looking at the toll transaction numbers posted on the Texas 130 site, commercial traffic in fact has doubled since 2013, the first full year the tollway was open. And commercial tolls increased by 18.5 percent between 2016 and 2017, to about 4,800 transactions per day. Bear in mind, a car or truck can tally two transactions on a single trip.
The story with noncommercial traffic overall on Texas 130 South (TxDOT operates the northern 49-mile section) is less sunny. Passenger car and small truck transactions in 2017 were 44 percent higher than in 2013, but crept up only 0.2 percent last year. So that road, most of which runs through rural Caldwell and Guadalupe counties, remains a financial challenge.