DANIEL CLIFTON • EDITOR
MARBLE FALLS — When Burnet County Judge James Oakley was first elected to the Burnet County Commissioners Court in 1998 as Precinct 4 commissioner, he began advocating for an improved bridge below Wirtz Dam as a way to alleviate traffic congestion on U.S. 281 and through Marble Falls.
The plan, in which then-commissioner Oakley believed, never found much support among the rest of the commissioners court or beyond.
Things have changed dramatically since Oakley left the court a decade ago and rejoined in 2015 as the county judge. In a public “partner kickoff” meeting Sept. 9 at Marble Falls City Hall, local, regional and state officials gathered to begin the process of determining whether the Highland Lakes community desires such a bridge or believes it is needed.
“This is not a bypass. It’s not a loop,” Oakley said in the packed room. “It’s another way into Marble Falls. Another spoke in the wheel.”
The plan, which has earned the support of the Capitol Area Metropolitan Organization (CAMPO), calls for building a bridge below Wirtz Dam, located west of Marble Falls, at the end of Wirtz Dam Road to join up with RR 2147 between Horseshoe Bay and Cottonwood Shores. Burnet County Precinct 4 Commissioner Joe Don Dockery pointed out that in a 2005 traffic study, about 3,500 cars a day would utilize such a bridge. Oakley added that those numbers would be even higher today.
The issue, Oakley said, is many people on the north side of Lake Marble Falls/Lake LBJ must go through Marble Falls, cut south to RR 2147 and head back west to get around the lake. The reverse is true for those going from the south side to the north side.
During the program, several members of law enforcement agencies and EMS pointed out the value of such a bridge in cutting down response times. Marble Falls Area EMS executive director Johnny Campbell said a bridge in that location could greatly help in situations where they needed to get an ambulance on either side of Lake LBJ/Lake Marble Falls.
“Our Horseshoe Bay ambulance is usually the last we have to put in service,” he said. “If we need to get it on the north side in the Granite Shoals area, right now, it has to go through Marble Falls. A bridge there (below Wirtz Dam) would really cut (the response time by the Horseshoe Bay unit) down.”
Calvin Boyd, who will become the Burnet County sheriff Jan. 1, 2017, concurred with Campbell from a law enforcement standpoint.
“To me, it’s no-brainer,” he said.
Boyd said a bridge at that location would allow deputies and other law enforcement officers who might be on the north side of the lake and west of Marble Falls to cut across on calls to the south side much more quickly than having to navigate through Marble Falls to U.S. 281 and then south to RR 2147.
Oakley also pointed out that, if for some reason the U.S. 281 bridge in Marble Falls was closed, the only other options for crossing over would be the RR 2900 bridge in Kingsland or RR 620 below Mansfield Dam about 60-plus miles to the east.
But not everyone was convinced the bridge is necessary,
Cottonwood Shores Mayor Donald Orr expressed concerns over the impact it might have on businesses and restaurants in his city. He felt the bridge would shift traffic away from his town and away from those businesses.
“I believe we need to look at other alternatives, cheaper alternatives,” Orr said.
One idea he recommended was for officials to work on getting the traffic lights in Marble Falls, particularly those on U.S. 281, better synchronized to improve traffic flow.
Funding was another question that arose.
Oakley said before TxDOT would really start supporting such a project, local leaders need to get CAMPO on board. CAMPO is a regional transportation planning organization that works with six counties, including Burnet County.
What that means is it opens more funding sources for the proposed bridge, which Oakley said would probably cost close to $20 million, a bit more than TxDOT’s estimate of $15.3 million.
“This won’t be a local project,” Oakley said, meaning Burnet and Llano counties aren’t going to fund it.
CAMPO executive director Ashby Johnson said one of his goals is to get the project included on possible funding through Proposition 7 sources. In 2015, Texas voters approved a state constitutional amendment that dedicates portions of the state’s general revenue sale-and-use tax and motor vehicle sales tax to the highway fund for non-tolled projects.
“There are a number of pots of money,” he said. “We can also combine several pots of money.”
“I maintain it should be a TxDOT project because it helps with 281 congestion,” Oakley said. “And 281 is more and more being used as an alternative to (U.S. Interstate) 35.”
Along with state funds, he noted that the project could be eligible for federal funding.
Llano County Precinct 1 Commissioner Peter Jones asked if this project would be in competition for TxDOT funds with other road projects in Llano and Burnet counties. But state officials said it wouldn’t, and the bridge project would “stand on its own.”
While there seemed to be overwhelming support among those in attendance at the meeting, it was the first in a long list of steps before the bridge project ever earns a stamp of approval.
CAMPO staff and officials said they are developing a community input process to gather public feedback on the proposed bridge. This includes a strong push on community input through the middle of November with a goal of reporting back the results either in late December or January 2017.
Along with developing a community input survey (which they plan to solicit a number of ways, including online), CAMPO officials will also attend several community events to meet with members of the public.
This initial meeting, CAMPO officials emphasized, was just the start.
Oakley added that if people are hesitant about the possible bridge project but still have concerns about congestion on U.S. 281 through Marble Falls, just imagine what traffic will be like in the years to come.
“If you think we need it today, think where we’ll be in 20 years, or even five or 10 years,” he said. “Because that’s what we’re really planning for with this.”