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Council members disagree over SH 45, salamander resolutions

Wednesday, September 26, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell tried to pitch regional unity while arguing against two upcoming resolutions that concern potential threats to Barton Springs at Tuesday’s City Council work session, but it’s doubtful that he convinced his colleagues harm would be done to the city’s relationship with its neighbors.

Leffingwell’s concerns centered on two resolutions that City Council will consider on Thursday: first, the controversial State Highway 45 Southwest that is proposed to cross over the Barton Springs portion of the Edwards Aquifer to Hays County and, second, one that would support the recent proposed federal “endangered” listing of rare salamanders found in Barton Springs and other area springs.

Specifically, the first resolution would direct the city manager to withdraw and later resubmit a request Council made in June asking the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) to remove SH 45 SW from its 2035 regional transportation plan. The second would submit the scientific opinion of the city’s Watershed Protection Department staff about the proposed listing of the Austin Blind and the Jollyville Plateau Salamanders on the federal endangered species list to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Leffingwell said he had been contacted by several parties outside Austin who said approval of the two resolutions would damage the relationship between the city and the region. “The concern is that both of these take away all progress we’ve made in the past few years toward regionalism,” Leffingwell said.

Lisa Birkman, Williamson County Pct. 1 commissioner and Williamson County Conservation Foundation president, said in an email sent to Council members on Tuesday that both the county and the foundation have “spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in research on many aspects of the life cycle of local salamanders” and that “our scientific data will lead you to conclude that the listing is premature at this time.”

Leffingwell told his Council colleagues that even though the salamander resolution “parses its words very carefully,” the perception among some people in the region is that the city is trying to impose listing against the will of the people in Williamson County and without the necessary scientific evidence.

“The perception is out there again that the City of Austin is trying to make a decision on this and have influence on something that in their minds has very significant consequences in Williamson County,” Leffingwell said. “People in Williamson County see this as a thumb in the eye.”

Council Member Bill Spelman, a co-sponsor of both resolutions, said he couldn’t see how Austin scientists contributing their findings to the federal government would be damaging to city/region relations.

“The reason for this resolution is to further Fish and Wildlife’s capacity to make a good scientific decision,” Spelman said. ”We’ve had some scientists from Austin in Watershed Protection who’ve worked on this issue for years, who know a lot about those salamanders. It seems to me it is only assisting in regional cooperation and assisting the federal government’s capacity to make a good scientific decision for us to provide the information we have collected over the years to Fish and Wildlife for use in making a scientific decision.”

A similar debate took place over the CAMPO resolution.

As part of the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, which was approved by Council in June, staffers requested that CAMPO remove State Highway 45 SW – possibly a toll road, running between south MoPac east to Hays County – from its 2035 regional transportation plan. Environmental groups, such as the Save Our Springs Alliance, oppose the proposed highway since it may threaten the water quality in Barton Springs and the habitat for rare species. But since new (hopefully better) transportation modeling data is expected within the next few months, and since the next cycle of potential Transportation Improvement Project (TIP) amendments to the CAMPO plan won’t be considered until early 2013, the new resolution would withdraw the amendment request and resubmit it once the updated traffic modeling study is completed.

Once again, Leffingwell pointed to conversations he’d had with people from outside Austin but in the region, including the executive director of CAMPO, who, he said, feel approving the withdrawal would only cause confusion and resentment.

“The feeling around the area that CAMPO represents is fairly strongly that this is an Austin thing, that Austin is trying to impose its will on the rest of the region, and there’s frankly a lot of resentment over it,” Leffingwell said. “It is seen as an effort on the part of Austin to interfere in regional roads and transportation facilities that are outside of Austin.”

But Spelman argued that though SH 45 SW will primarily be serving Hays County, most of its deleterious effects will be felt in Austin, as congestion on MoPac.

“The gain is going to be (theirs); the pain is going to be primarily to us and our constituents,” Spelman said. “And that is what regional cooperation is all about: sorting our who gets the benefits, who bears the cost, and what, on balance, is going to be best for the entire region.”

The resolution’s sponsor, Council Member Chris Riley, said that since CAMPO will be holding public hearings on the highway early next year regardless of the city’s amendment request, there’s no reason for Council to consider a withdrawal before the new transportation modeling data comes in.

“More information will be available during the next round of TIP amendments early next year,” Riley said. “We’ll have fresh new data to consider.”

By the end of the discussion it looked like Council members could be willing to compromise and postpone withdrawing their request until after that new data comes in. Still, Council Member and co-sponsor Laura Morrison said she was concerned about the perspective that the city expressing its opinion about a regional issue implies what the mayor called a “huge setback for efforts to promote regionalism.”

“I think it’s important that we understand that sometimes there is going to be disagreement between the different jurisdictions,” she said. “I hate for folks in the area to think that because we are promoting what is our vision, that makes it a giant step back for regionalism.”

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