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Residents rally for FM 1626 widening

by BRAD ROLLINS

Insisting that work not be delayed on the widening of FM 1626, more than 400 mostly Kyle- and Buda-area residents spilled out of the Elm Grove Elementary School cafeteria and into the hallwayson Tuesday during a final environmental hearing on a segment of the roadway slated for improvement.

Hays County Commissioner Jeff Barton asked those in attendance, more than 400 people, to stand if they wanted the FM 1626 fixed. More than 90% of those attending stood, yelling, “Fix 1626!” Written comments can be sent to TxDOT about the road through Dec. 18. FREE PRESS PHOTO by CYNDY SLOVAK-BARTON

In 2008, Hays County voters overwhelmingly authorized more than $83 million to widen 6.8 miles of the north-south thoroughfare that takes many residents to and from work in Austin every day and many more to schools and workplaces within the county. In 2004, an average of 12,800 vehicles a day used the road, according to the Texas Department of Transportation, and that volume is projected to rise to more than 20,000 by 2024.

This week’s hearing dealt with the northern segment of the planned improvements from RM 967 to Travis County, a project that would transform what Hays County Pct. 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton called an “outdated, unforgiving and deadly” two-lane rural road into a four-lane highway with a continuous center turn lane and wide shoulders. At one point in the hearing, Barton asked those in support to rise and say “Fix 1626” and it was hard to see anyone who didn’t do so.

“We demand of our friends in TxDOT that this project not be slowed down further, but moved faster… It is unsafe and it is unacceptable especially when it is within our power to do something about it,” Barton said.

The sentiment was echoed by nearly all of the residents who spoke at the hearing, such as Buda resident Melissa Frensley who said, “I drive on 1626 every day and it scares me because it puts my child’s life at risk.”

TxDOT area engineer Don Nyland and other TxDOT officials told the crowd that a years-long environmental assessment found no significant impact. The project now goes to the Federal Highway Administration which must sign-off on the environmental study before construction can begin. Nyland also said the total project cost for the northern section of FM 1626 is now estimated at $36,399,459, well under the $43.2 million allocated for the work in the 2008 bond package.

Support, however was not unanimous. A representative of the Save Our Springs Alliance urged TxDOT to take its time in studying the road’s impact on the Edwards Aquifer. And Travis County Transportation Director Joe Gieselman showed up to say his county’s commissioners court oppose the project because of concerns that it will further swamp residential Brodie Lane with commuters cutting through to Mopac, (Loop 1), in Austin.

The Travis County Commissioners Court voted last week to oppose the project, with Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe telling one news outlet, “I’m thinking that there’s great value in immediately communicating that we just got word of it and it will just cause nightmares for us on Brodie.”

Barton rejected the notion that Travis County commissioners recently learned of the planned improvements to 1626, noting they were part of a highly publicized bond election and integral to discussion of SH 45 SW, a proposed connector between FM 1626 and Mopac. In August, Biscoe all but declared SH 45 SW dead for now, telling the Hays Free Press at the time that “when you lay the political will” next to the environmental and funding demands of the project, it isn’t likely to happen soon.

Barton said, “It is baffling to say the very least – stunning to be honest – that they would weigh in against a project in Hays County without understanding the project and without talking to the project sponsors in the county. … You can’t just talk about regional cooperation when it’s convenient. … It seems like a retreat to the days of parochialism and pitting one community against another.”

San Marcos Mercury Editor and Publisher Brad Rollins writes about Hays County for the Hays Free Press where this story was originally published.