By Mike Heiligenstein
Earlier this year in a downtown Austin office building, I spoke to a group of area chamber of commerce leaders about the state of roadway project planning and development in our region.
And at the end of my presentation, a hand shot up in the front row.
“Why,” the questioner asked, “does it take so long to get things done?”
It was a tough question, but a fair one. A lot of us wonder why it takes so long to address mobility issues. The problem is particularly troublesome in Travis and Williamson Counties, where fast population and traffic growth means we have to double our transportation capacity about every 25 years to meet growing needs.
My answer was that it takes time to do the environmental study required by the federal government.
This has been an issue across the United States, and Congress is finally doing something about it.
In the new 2-year transportation bill that was passed in June, Congress eliminated the requirement to conduct environmental studies on certain projects, such as maintenance projects and even expansion projects if they don’t require the purchase of additional land. Congress is also requiring a type of mediation process for projects that have been bogged down in the environmental review process for at least four years. These provisions could apply to a number of long delayed Central Texas projects. Congress has also shortened the amount of time project opponents have to seek judicial relief if they feel the project hasn’t been developed in accordance with federal guidelines.
That’s music to our ears. We want to spend less time and money studying projects and be able to devote more money to building them. But that doesn’t mean we can just ignore the impacts of a transportation project. We’ll still need to consider many of the same issues we always have, such as impacts to historical properties, nearby homeowners, parks, minority and low income groups, water quality, air quality, flood plains, wetlands and endangered species, just to name a few. And, we’ll still need to do things like acquire permits, protect homeowners from increased noise and protect endangered species. It’s just that we’ll be able to do all that faster and with less red tape. Our Green Mobility Challenge was a perfect example of our commitment. Last year, we asked the best and brightest in the design community to come up with some innovative ways that we might build and maintain our projects in a more environmentally friendly and sustainable way. We’ve begun to implement some of those ideas and hope to incorporate even more in the future.
The reality is despite the increased flexibility provided by Congress, the folks we work with out in the community won’t notice much of a change. The Mobility Authority will still communicate early and often. We will be open and forthright about the challenges and negative impacts of the projects we develop, and we will continue to make regional mobility, economic development, quality of life and sustainability our top priorities. We’ll just try to do it all while working at a faster pace than we already do.
Mike Heiligenstein is Executive Director of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority.