Thursday, May 10, 2007

Article: Taking a stand

FM1626 near Jerry's Lane.

While attending the wiener dog races a couple of weeks ago, I wandered by an information booth on proposed highway improvements in Hays County. A large map showed expansion of FM1626. I didn’t think much about it. Change is inevitable. I took some literature, impressed with its glossy, well-organized presentation, and headed back to the stands. In the excitement of the event, I forgot all about road improvements.

Driving, I dismissed the primitive roadside signs admonishing drivers to vote no on road bonds. They were probably the work of special interest groups or people who want time to stand still. Again, the issue faded from my mind.

But this week my husband received an automated phone call to local residents stating that County Commissioner Jeff Barton was giving a presentation on the road bond and its impact on FM1626 in just a couple of hours. We didn’t have anything else to do, the meeting was conveniently located and the call peaked our curiosity. We decided to attend.

There was quite a crowd and it was obvious they weren’t happy. Many had been to a previous meeting where they’d learned the transformed FM1626 would not include an access point to their subdivision. Some were concerned about the affect of the expansion of the road from a rural two-lane farm-to-market into a five-lane conduit for traffic from points south into Austin. Others wanted to know how they would be compensated for the degradation of their homes or properties that proximity to this high-volume thoroughfare would bring.

For the most part, Rick and I sat back and listened. We’re not used to being involved. And our property is a good distance off FM1626, expanding the road would probably increase our property value if it had any effect at all. But it was hard to miss the tone of the meeting, which was that it had already been decided and this thing is a great deal, a once-in-a-life-time opportunity that has to be taken right now.

At one point a local resident asked how long it would be before there would be road improvements if this bond is defeated. The reply was thirty years! Barton later clarified that some improvements would undoubtedly take place within that time but there would be no major work on the level of what the bond would support. It felt like we were all being sold a used car, if you don’t snap this beauty up today, it’ll be gone tomorrow!

And don’t look under the hood. Rick asked a couple of questions about possible risks to the project. What if the community does not grow as expected? What if the project comes in over-budget? I’m not sure how legitimate those concerns are but Barton and the representative for the contractor who would build the road seemed to think they were irrelevant.

I remember when FM1626 used to be a Mecca for bicyclists. Traffic has gotten too heavy these days so you don’t see many anymore. I wondered if we couldn’t build a road with bike lanes to help preserve some of our local heritage as we expand. Wouldn’t it be nice if local kids could ride their bikes down to the new YMCA at the corner of FM1626 and FM967? Not to mention there are elementary and middle schools right there. Could we build a road so that kids could bike to school?

The answer is no. Out of $172 million dollars, there’s money for cars only. Barton explained proudly that $2 million--less than 1.5%--of the total budget could be spent on extras to preserve local flavor. He and the contractor explained how lucky we were. They might even use some of that money to spare a few existing trees. It occurred to me that those very trees were what used to attract bicyclists.

Something snapped for me in that meeting. I’m sick of the way big roads destroy local communities. Where I work in Austin is less than ¼ mile from where we normally eat lunch but no matter how nice the day, we have to drive. There is no safe way to get there without a car.

I don’t even own a bike but I am never again going to vote for a road that doesn’t include bike lanes.

Update: The road bond failed! I guess FM1626 will stay as it is for the next 30 years.

Photo: Near the corner of FM1626 and FM967. Where's all the traffic?

Photo: Looking south toward my road, Jerry's Lane, at the top of the hill.
Photo: Looking north from the previous location. No wonder people used to like to cycle here.