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Fighting back on MoPac By Jim Neff Austin Texas’ new highway department is up to its same old tricks. Despite a new name the State Department of Highways and Public Transportation the highway bureaucrats continue to ignore mass transit in favor of laying down more and more pavement for private auto use. This should come as no surprise to anyone. The Legislature showed its priorities last spring when it combined the Highway Department \(16,400 employees Commission \(four [4] and then allocated only $15 million of the department’s $850 public transit. million budget to Among urban planners it’s generally accepted that freeways induce traffic congestion, encourage urban sprawl, and often produce more serious problems than they solve. The easier you make things for cars, the more you encourage the use of cars and the more congested a city gets. The highway department, however, is filled with engineers rather than urban planners and the highway engineers share no such assumptions. Right now the highway bureaucrats are busy as beavers building four-lane loops pop. such single-minded dedication to road building that prompted mass transit advocates in the Legislature to fight to keep the Transportation Commission independent of the . Highway Department. As Sen. Babe Schwartz of Galveston argued, “I don’t think we ought to give tomorrow’s problems to people who live in yesterday.” THE HIGHWAY department’s authority to do whatever it pleases with its massive dedicated fund has rarely been challenged. But right now in Austin the department and Austin neighborhood groups are locked in combat that exemplifies the battles to come in other Texas cities. The highway department is trying to complete MoPac Expressway, a 16-mile, six-lane limited access freeway that cuts through a number of established West Austin neighborhoods and a wilderness area along Barton Creek. A coalition of west and southwest neighborhood groups and Austin’s legislative delegation are challenging the department on environmental and planning issues. The writer is a graduate student in American Studies at UT Austin. 12 The Texas Observer George McLemore The state got involved with MoPac in 1966 when a delegation of city council members and state legislators asked the department to fund the project as a highway. “It has always been a planned highway service for the City of Austin,” Mayor Lester Palmer told the highway commissioners in ’66. “We have always envisioned it as a controlled access highway.” Anna Drayer, an attorney who is working with MoPac opponents, told the Observer that MoPac was not originally planned as a highway but as a tree-lined inner-city boulevard. She insisted that the city’s approach to the highway department “was basically a sellout to get state and federal funds.” Whatever the original plans, more than $100 million has been pumped into MoPac; $20 million from the state, $24 million from the city, $6 million from the county, and the rest federal. Half the project is finished in terms of mileage, but some planners predict MoPac would cost from $150 to $200 million to complete as planned. Back in 1966 when the city asked the highway department to pitch in on MoPac, city hall politicians were working hand in glove with suburban real estate interests. For example, David Barrow, the developer of Northwest Hills, was chairman of the City Planning Commission. He was also among the dignitaries who went to the highway commissioners hat in hand to plead for state and federal funds. City politicians saw no conflict of interest in the fact that Barrow, whose suburban development was much enhanced by the easy access MoPac would provide to the central city, was also head of the planning commission. As construction of the freeway got underway, West Austin residents began to feel that they had been snookered. Why hadn’t they been asked more questions about MoPac in the first place, they wondered? Actually, more than 300 citizen’s a group called “Citizens Alert” gathered in 1968 to discuss opposition tactics to the freeway. But highway department and city officials swept this under the rug. MoPac planners considered the required public hearings for MoPac a mere formality. As Clint Small, Jr., chairman of the final hearing, explained to the gathering, “We assume everybody here is for it. If you’re here to speak against it you’re at the wrong meeting.” MoPac got the go-ahead. But city priorities have changed radically since 1968. Austin residents are now questioning the inherent value of growth and have balanced their desires for the new with an appreciation for the old and for having roots in a definable community. Last year approximately 3,000 Austinites contributed their thoughts to a goals statement that called for limited growth and lots of mass transit to provide an alternative to the car. The newly-elected city council members are committed to these goals as are all of the city’s state legislators. A city which nine years ago begged the highway department for funding is not at all sure anymore that it wants a superhighway through some of its nicest inner-city neighborhoods. MoPAC AS planned would link F.M. 1325 on the north to Hwy 290 some 16 miles to the south. About 60,000 cars and trucks would use MoPac daily, and this is expected to increase. West Austin, the neighborhood most affected by MoPac, is a well-defined area which is bounded on the south and west by the Colorado River. The downtown, the capitol complex and The University of Texas set limits on the east. Growth is to the north. West Austin arterial Streets would handle MoPac traffic moving east off the expressway to reach the Capitol, the university, and downtown. Citizens fear that 60,000 or so autos spilled daily onto their residential streets would increase air and noise pollution, bring about commercial strip zoning, ruin property values, and further encourage flight to David Barrow’s Louise Jarrell, a West Austin resident who doesn’t want her neighborhood to become a traffic filter for other parts of