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State Highway 45 SW gets airing at CAMPO hearing

Tuesday, September 11, 2012 by Kimberly Reeves

Both sides of the debate on the controversial proposal to build State Highway 45 Southwest were represented at Monday night’s hearing on amendments to the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s long-range plan, but the lack of a dynamic modeling study meant the hearing lost some potential sizzle.


About 100 people attended the hearing on CAMPO’s 2035 plan in the Lady Bird Auditorium – the first time CAMPO had hosted a meeting in the auditorium in eight years. The clear majority, asked to stand by Hays County Commissioner Mark Jones, was in favor of building SH 45 SW, but many pro-environment regulars, from Save Our Springs Alliance and the Sierra Club, were on hand to speak in opposition.


The CAMPO board did not respond to speakers during the hearing, but that did not stop Jones from providing a passionate support for the highway, giving the panel 10 reasons why the roadway should be built to relieve congestion in northern Hays County. He outlined pending development. He spoke of population growth. He mentioned how the toll-road agency, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, could build the road without degrading the land over the Barton Springs Recharge Zone.


“We have a population that is continuing to grow,” Jones said, referring the Austin metropolitan area. “Right now we’re at 1.7 million and we’re going to be 3 million by 2035.”


Hays County already has offered $5 million to fund the four-lane road project if it can get the go-ahead from the Travis County Commissioners Court. That clearly won’t happen if the CAMPO board votes next month to pass a City of Austin amendment to pull the project, which would run through the sensitive Edwards Aquifer recharge zone, from the CAMPO 2035 plan.


Monday’s agenda was to include a dynamic modeling study of SH 45 SW’s potential impact on the region, but the study was pulled from the agenda late last week due to what CAMPO staff called “flaws.”


Austin’s amendment to remove SH 45 SW from the transportation planning organization’s long-term plan is intended to be consistent with the city’s long-term Imagine Austin comprehensive plan. If approved by CAMPO, the amendment would pull the $107 million project from the regional road plan, which includes construction south from Loop 1 (MoPac) to FM 1626 and a study from FM 1626 to Interstate 35. But even Austin City Council has been split on the issue, with Mayor Lee Leffingwell saying he supports the road’s inclusion in the plan in the name of “regional cooperation.”


Jones and frustrated residents in South Travis County are going head-to-head with long-time opponents of SH 45 SW, part of what was once referred to as the Outer Loop. Landowner Ira Yates, who sat through many of the first hearings on the project, said he coined a name for the much-discussed Outer Loop proposal: the Cocaine Highway.


“I remember the ‘80s, where the savings and loan money flowed freely and cocaine was everywhere,” Yates said. “I always figured this was planned somewhere in the middle of the night. It was so crazy, I sometimes call it the Cocaine Highway.”


Opponents to the project have some strong allies on the CAMPO board. Travis County Commissioner Karen Huber, for one, won her seat on the Travis County Commissioners Court, in part, by pledging her opposition to the project. The man she unseated, Gerald Daugherty, is basing much his campaign to unseat her in November on his support for the project. And, yes, Daugherty was quite visible at Monday’s hearing, chatting and greeting the road project’s supporters.


Bill Bunch of the SOS Alliance also took the microphone at the hearing, pointing out that the Outer Loop to the west, as originally conceived, did not include a connection to MoPac. An existing commuter highway is being substituted for a larger never-built ring to the west that was pulled from the plan, Bunch said.


“That would be a disaster for what is an already over-congested MoPac,” Bunch told the board. “We have many better, much cheaper alternatives, some of which are already under way.”


Bunch suggested using existing right of way to expand Brodie Lane, making improvements to the south end of Manchaca Road and moving forward with Lone Star Rail – a proposed passenger rail service between Austin and San Antonio – to provide better access across the region.


Attendees who don’t usually show up for CAMPO meetings seemed split. Residents on the south end of Brodie scoffed at expansion as a solution. A representative of the Friendship Alliance of neighborhoods in northern Hays County saw no benefit from the construction of the loop. The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce voiced its continuing support for the project.


Resident Rebecca Bray said what probably a few on the board must have been thinking on Monday night with no dynamic model to consider: The project’s actual construction is so far down the road that a year delay won’t make a difference.


“No one’s planning on turning dirt any time soon. You’re truly in the planning process,” Bray said. “There are just too many unknowns. I’m just asking you to reconsider this amendment, and wait until the next amendment cycle, especially knowing you’re only in the planning mode and not the construction phase.”


CAMPO has scheduled a series of hearings around the region before its Oct. 8 vote on amendments to its 2035 transportation plan.

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