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New SH 45 SW traffic projections won’t be ready for vote

Thursday, September 13, 2012 by Kimberly Reeves

The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s (CAMPO) board will have to wait until November for updated traffic projections for a potential segment of the controversial State Highway 45 Southwest, which means the new information will come after the scheduled vote on amendments to its long-range transportation plan.


CAMPO Assistant Director Buddy Needham said Wednesday that mistakes with the projections came to light after models were distributed to local jurisdictions. Traffic counts were too low, and a closer review showed that employment and population projections were lower than those for 2010, rather than reflecting potential 2025 traffic levels.

CAMPO staff should have a better idea by next Friday just now long it will take to rework the data to come up with traffic counts, Needham said.


“It probably will be approximately two months, but even that will be cutting it close,” Needham said. “We have to set out different goal densities, and we’re talking about 600,000 individual parcels in our model, so it’s going to take a while. We obviously want to make sure it’s vetted through the jurisdictions to make sure they’re okay with our data.”


The City of Austin has asked that SH 45 SW be pulled from the CAMPO 2035 plan, a choice that puts the city at odds with Hays County, whose elected officials are clamoring for the new highway they believe will relieve congestion. CAMPO has scheduled a vote Oct. 8 on the amendments to the plan, and Needham said CAMPO board members are of two minds when it comes to the dynamic modeling study.

Those who want to consider the traffic data want to see everything but SH 45 SW approved at next month’s meeting. The others, who are convinced the road project is a bad idea, no matter what, want to go ahead and vote.


The dynamic modeling exercise was intended to provide traffic counts on five different SH 45 SW scenarios: no build; two-lane and four-lane tolled; and two-lane and four-lane non-tolled. The two-lane non-tolled model and the one for a four-lane tolled road were considered the most critical, with traffic counts based on when the road would open, which would be 2025.


The 2025 time frame for the traffic model doesn’t even include the full length of the road. Instead, the model would measure traffic counts from MoPac to Ben McCullough Road. The balance of the road between McCullough and Interstate 35 is still under the “study” phase, constrained by funding, Needham said.


The SH 45 SW loop between MoPac and Interstate 35 is broken into three segments. While the loop will run across the environmentally sensitive Barton Springs Recharge Zone, it’s still impossible to tell whether one segment is more ecologically sensitive than another or if certain habitat might prohibit construction altogether, he said.


“To talk about whether one segment is more ecologically sensitive than another would require you to speculate,” Needham said. “Until you go through the process, and you complete the environmental survey, you don’t even know where the mitigation would have to be and what all the impacts are on the environment. You can speculate, but that’s all it is: speculation.”


The first construction was scheduled from MoPac to Camp Ben McCullough Road because Hays County already had secured pass-through financing from the Texas Department of Transportation for improvements to FM 1626. Once FM 1626 is connected to MoPac, some of the traffic pressures should be taken off the roads leading into Travis County, like Brodie and Manchaca, traffic planners say.


During this week’s hearing, the Friendship Alliance of Neighborhoods expressed doubts about the SH 45 SW project. And until the length of the loop is built between MoPac and Interstate 35, the full impact of the road on the neighborhoods closer to I 35 probably won’t be known.


Some of the concepts of the Imagine Austin plan, such as “centers” of denser residential and commercial growth, will be part of the traffic projections. The closest centers to the road projects are South Austin and Buda, although other centers are located to the south in San Marcos and Kyle.


Needham was optimistic CAMPO staff would be able to move forward with updated information and a more accurate projection. He agreed that SH 45 SW was a longer-term project, but the three-year Transportation Improvement Plan was a “must pass” in October, to take advantage of state-funding options.


Capital Metro is driving many of the amendments in the shorter-term three-year TIP, mainly because of the Federal Transit Administration’s funding schedule, which is less predictable than the Federal Highway Administration, Needham said.

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