Tuesday, February 11, 2014 by Andy Sevilla

SH45 Southwest gaining steam with federal funding removal

The construction of State Highway 45 Southwest could come sooner rather than later, bypassing lengthy, stringent federal reviews, now that CAMPO, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, has stripped the $100 million project of federal funding.

Without federal dollars, the state could move forward with the project, eliminating the federal environmental requirements attached to the national government dollars, and instead SH45 Southwest would be subject to state guidelines, which some critics say are more lax.

Longtime SH45 SW proponent, Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, helped engineer the state-for-federal fund swap in order to speed construction of the four-lane toll road. Daugherty has advocated for building the roadway, which is in his Travis County precinct, for more than two decades.

The 3.6-mile long stretch of roadway would be built over the recharge zone of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer.

“They (Austin City staff) note that the state environmental study will not be as rigorous or robust as the requirements of the federal National Environmental Policy Act procedures; and the city has a policy to support the comprehensive review and careful consideration of infrastructure improvements in this environmentally sensitive area,” Austin Council Member Chris Riley said in opposition to removing federal funding from the project.

CAMPO board members transferred $8.62 million in federal funds from SH45 Southwest to the US 183 South toll way project Monday night in a 16-2 vote. The organization also transferred $8.2 million in state funding from US 183 to SH45. Riley and Council Member Bill Spellman, who sit on the CAMPO transportation policy board, were the two dissenting votes.

Riley said as a representative of the City of Austin he would stand with the city’s transportation staff’s recommendation and not support the removal of federal funding for SH45 Southwest, which in turn would eliminate the national environmental reviews the project would need to clear.

Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe, however, said the move by CAMPO was a “simple” step toward reallocating federal funds away from SH45 because another strategy to fund the project “right away” has surfaced.

Biscoe added that environmental protection would be paramount, “and I don’t know how we can do more than say, ‘we’ll spend whatever amount of money is necessary to protect the environment.”

SH45 Southwest had long been a subject of lawsuits, particularly in regard to the removal of federal funding for the project, which ultimately a federal appellate court decided was legal.

Save Our Springs Executive Director Bill Bunch told CAMPO board members that the state has “flip flopped” on the issue and decided to fast track SH45 Southwest and abandon the federal funding to dodge their requirements.

“If any place in our region needs a good, honest study, it’s here” in the “most vulnerable drinking water supply in the state,” Bunch said.

Biscoe told the Austin Monitor Monday night that Travis and Hays County would partner to provide $20 million in cash for SH45 Southwest, and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority would issue debt to cover the remaining $80 million needed for the four-lane toll way.

CAMPO Chair Will Conley said Hays County, Travis County, the state and CTRMA have been working in concert to “find a good solution to the development of Southwest 45.”

“There is unanimous support in Hays County to develop this roadway, to do so in a responsible manner, but to do so also as efficiently and effectively as we possibly can,” Conley said. “I believe this process will serve us best in accomplishing all those goals.”

Hays and Travis County Commissioners Courts have both passed resolutions supporting the construction of SH45 Southwest with unanimous support – though Travis County Pct. 1 Commissioner Ron Davis was absent for the vote — though Biscoe said he imagined Davis would have too supported the roadway.

And although Biscoe supports the project, he is ending his 24-year tenure at the court in December, and Democratic County Judge candidates Sarah Eckhardt and Andy Brown have both vocalized opposition to SH45 Southwest. Also, Brigid Shea, the best-known candidate in the race for Commissioner Precinct 2, is opposed to the roadway, as is at least one of her opponents – Garry Brown. Thus, Biscoe and Daugherty, who represents southwest Travis County, see the need to speed up the project before the court changes.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

CAMPO: The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization is the regional planning organization for Bastrop, Burnet, Caldwell, Hays, Travis, and Williamson Counties. Its membership is drawn from the elected officials of those municipalities, as well as various cities that fall within the region, including the City of Austin. CAMPO's focus is on regional transportation issues.

Gerald Daugherty: Current Travis County Pct. 3 Commissioner. Daugherty was unseated in 2008 by Karen Huber. He returned the favor in 2013, when he ran on a platform nearly entirely focused on a promise to build the controversial SH45 Southwest road project.

Save Our Springs Alliance (SOS): An advocacy organization. According to its web site, Save Our Springs "works to protect the Edwards Aquifer, its springs and contributing streams, and the natural and cultural heritage of the Hill Country region and its watersheds, with special emphasis on Barton Springs."

SH45SW: A controversial road project that supporters argue would ease traffic traveling through areas of far Southwest Travis and far Southeastern Hays County. Opponents argue that the environmental impact of the effort, which runs close to sensitive land, is not worth that risk. The debate over the issue goes back as far as the mid-1980s.

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