A $425 million cost increase to the 183 North project received approval from a regional transportation group Feb. 8 but not without scrutiny from public officials on the group’s policy board.
The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority is proposing the 183 North project, which would add two express, or toll, lanes in each direction on US 183 between RM 620 and MoPac. Revising the original project cost, scope and limits required support from the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. Those changes were added to CAMPO’s 2040 long-range transportation plan.
The 183 North project would also connect to the MoPac express lanes under construction and to RM 620. From the approved budget, $5 million would go toward 4.5 miles of sidewalks and 1 mile of a shared-use path that would link existing bicycle lanes on Pond Springs and Jollyville roads.
When CAMPO, which manages transportation planning for six Central Texas counties, initially approved the project as part of its 2040 long-range plan last May, the estimated project cost was $225 million. The project had also been included in the 2035 plan with the same dollar amount and was essentially grandfathered into the 2040 plan, CAMPO Executive Director Ashby Johnson said.
Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea, who sits on the CAMPO policy board, questioned how the Mobility Authority was so off on its early estimated cost.
Justin Word, Mobility Authority director of engineering, told the board that the project planning predates his time at the agency, and he was not sure how CTRMA arrived at that cost estimate.
Some policy board members also wanted to know why CAMPO staff did not include a recommendation from the agency’s technical advisory committee in November to also add to the 2040 plan language that included a continuous shared-use path.
“After some discussion between CAMPO staff, [Texas Department of Transportation] Austin and CTRMA in looking at corridor, we had serious concerns about the addition of that language based on safety mainly,” Johnson said.
Word said the Mobility Authority previously studied adding a shared-use path but realized the numerous driveways and cross streets brought safety risks.
“Alternative parallel routes made sense,” he said.
The agency then proposed creating a connection across the US 183 corridor to allow cyclists to connect to the Pond Springs and Jollyville bike lanes.
Austin City Council Member Ann Kitchen, who also sits on the CAMPO board, made a motion to add language to the 2040 plan that would allow consideration for adding a shared-use path on the US 183 corridor where feasible. That motion failed.
Williamson County Commissioner Cynthia Long suggested the city of Austin could step up and fund shared-use paths where it sees fit.
“There’s no reason to rule it out at this point in the process,” Kitchen said in response. “We’re also not talking about who’s specifically going to pay for it at this point. The city of Austin is open to talking about who should pay for it.”
History of cost increases
During a March 2015 open house, the Mobility Authority had already estimated the project cost would be between $500 million and $600 million. The agency also unveiled an additional $5 million in improvements for sidewalks and a shared-use path as well as building a direct connector to the MoPac express lanes, which are under construction.
But Bunch said he never heard that amount mentioned before and does not believe the cost increase is a direct result of the Mobility Authority incorporating public input.
“Nobody we’ve talked to knew that,” he said.
During the Jan. 11 CAMPO board meeting, Johnson provided information on some of the cost increases, some of which he said is a result of inflation and moving the project start date from 2017 to 2019.
“When you look at all the things that have been added over time, it’s really not that alarming,” he said.
Word also went over details of the cost increases at the Jan. 27 Mobility Authority board meeting. The MoPac direct connector, which would tie in north of Steck Avenue and transition at-grade to MoPac until Far West Boulevard, would cost about $117 million. The direct connectors to RM 620 would cost about $147 million, and the fourth continuous general-purpose lane would be about $90 million.
“Two-thirds of that cost increase have been a direct result of public input we have received on the project, changes and scope changes we’ve made to get what the public has asked for,” he said.
At that Jan. 27 meeting, Mobility Authority Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein addressed why changes were not brought to CAMPO sooner to update the 2040 plan.
“There were a lot of elements changing, and the thinking was why go to CAMPO to amend it more than once,” he said. “Hopefully [the project cost]will be a lot less than [$650 million]. There’s nothing surreptitious about it.”
For more information visit www.183north.com.
Elected officials were not the only ones wanting answers about the cost increase and the exclusion of a continuous shared-use path along the US 183 corridor.
Prior to the CAMPO meeting, the Keep MoPac Local coalition, which has opposed adding elevated express toll lanes on MoPac South, hosted a press conference to urge the board to vote against the project cost increase and send the proposal back to the Mobility Authority board for review.
Organizer Bill Bunch, who is also executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, said the increase comes less than one year since the CAMPO 2040 long-range plan was approved with $225 million estimated for the 183 North project. Bunch said the group would like a written explanation of tallying all the reasons for the cost increase.
“There’s been a lack of transparency and accountability at the RMA board and a total complete uniformity of that board in voting and rubber-stamping essentially everything,” he said. “We think here they’re sort of looking the other way.”
Heyden Walker, a planner with Black + Vernooy, said the CAMPO board should have thought about the cost increase in a different way.
“We could build half the sidewalks that are missing in the city of Austin and provide safe places for people to walk,” she said.
Miller Nuttle, campaigns director for advocacy group Bike Austin, was one of a dozen residents who spoke in favor of a continuous shared-use path during the November public hearing for the 183 North project. He said having a shared-use path is a safety issue because the corridor is not suited for pedestrians or cyclists.
“183 North also has the highest need for short trips outside of downtown Austin, and those are people accessing jobs along 183 North, going to school or accessing the hundreds of businesses up and down the corridor,” he said. “There’s a real need for people to get safely to these businesses.”