Policymakers are in negotiations with the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority to bankroll more than half of a $200 million two-lane expansion on MoPac between Parmer Lane and Cesar Chavez Street.
But as part of the arrangement—and at the urging of a local bicycle advocacy group—project designers may go back to the drawing board to extend a proposed bicycle and pedestrian path that would run adjacent to the highway—an addition with a $23 million price tag.
As is, the Mobility Authority, an independent government agency formed as a partnership between Travis and Williamson counties, has allocated $5 million to building a 10-foot-wide concrete trail that would run alongside parts of the highway from Capital of Texas Hwy. north to Duval Road, much like the path that runs parallel to Toll 183A, and to filling in missing patches of sidewalk along the full project corridor.
The allocation would also pay for improvements at 13 intersections, including crossing signage, installation of ADA-compliant ramps and paint restriping, as well as a path that would provide access across US 183 at MoPac.
But, says Tom Wald, executive director of the League of Bicycling Voters, a nonprofit advocacy organization, that is not enough.
“One thing that’s clear is [the Mobility Authority’s] plan is not consistent with public policy at various levels. It’s not consistent with City of Austin plans and policies. It’s not consistent with federal policies. It’s not consistent with our metropolitan planning organization policies,” he said.
The $130 million or so loan would come from a $136.6 million bundle the Texas Department of Transportation is making available for shovel-ready projects in Central Texas. The board of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, composed of elected officials in the five-county Central Texas region, is charged with distributing that money.
For an example of a policy conflict, Wald points to CAMPO’s 2035 Regional Transportation Plan, the group’s guiding policy document, which says that when some roadways undergo reconstruction, including widening, resources should be allocated to bicycle and pedestrian enhancements as long as those costs are not more than 20 percent of total construction costs.
Wald said that if the Mobility Authority extended the path to run from Parmer Lane to RM 2222 without interruption, the addition would cost about $23 million, according to an estimate by HNTB Corp., the Mobility Authority’s outside engineer. Even so, an addition of that magnitude would still only bring the portion of total costs spent on bicycle and pedestrian facilities to 11 percent, up from about 2 percent now.
Austin City Councilman Chris Riley, a longtime advocate of making the region more bicycle friendly, is among the CAMPO board members who are encouraging consideration of the path’s extension.
“Seems to me that if we are to step in to provide the financing for the project, we can see what we can get in exchange for that. In particular, it seems that there may be opportunities to bring the project more closely into alignment with CAMPO policy and guidelines,” Riley said.
For providing the loan, CAMPO could reap up to $70 million in interest over 22 years, according to the Mobility Authority. That money, in addition to the loan repayment, would be reinvested into other transportation improvement projects in the region, such as I-35.
Repayment, beginning with an estimated $11 million principle installment, would begin in 2021, five years after the managed lanes are scheduled to open. At a 3 percent to 3.5 percent interest rate, the Mobility Authority would make $8.3 million in payments annually until 2043.
By going through CAMPO, the Mobility Authority could save about $50 million that it would otherwise have to put toward interest payments if the project is financed through a combination of municipal bonds and a loan from the Federal Highway Administration, one funding scenario if the loan from CAMPO falls through.
All in the timing
Further complicating matters is that adding the design for the path extension in project plans is a race against time.
The funds must be committed before Sept. 29 or CAMPO risks losing the money, a restrictive timeline given the amount of public input that needs to be gathered in accordance with CAMPO policy.
But if the MoPac plan undergoes major changes, such as a path extension, the project could be set back, said Mario Espinoza, deputy director for the Mobility Authority. If that happens, CAMPO would be left without a local project that meets TxDOT’s guidelines for this round of funding.
“We are not trying to delay the project,” Wald said of the league’s intentions. “We’re trying to improve mobility and that’s not just about moving cars.”
If all else fails, CAMPO could send the money to another metropolitan planning organization in a different part of the state under the requirement that the money would be paid back.
Cynthia Long, Williamson County commissioner and CAMPO board member, made it clear at an April CAMPO meeting what she thought about that option.
“I’m not a gambling person, but if I were, that’d be real low odds of it coming back in our lifetime,” she said.
CAMPO will host three public meetings about the project and proposed loan. The meeting in Austin is tentatively scheduled for May 16 at 5:30 p.m. at O. Henry Middle School, 2610 W. 10th St. Comments may be made online beginning May 7 at www.campotexas.org.
For more information on the MoPac Improvement Project, visit www.mopacexpress.com.
Correction: We inccorectly included bidge widening among the pedestrian and bicycle improvements. The proposed project does include bridge widening but that is not associated with pedestrian and bicycle improvements.