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Battle over SH45SW features argument between Biscoe and Bunch

Wednesday, March 12, 2014 by Mark Richardson

The never-ending case of SH 45 Southwest has dogged County Judge Sam Biscoe for the past 25 years of his public life. But at Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting – with his December retirement date in sight – the normally reserved Biscoe publicly engaged several of his critics over the project.

 

The proposed 3.6-mile, four-lane toll road would connect South MoPac with FM 1626 and has been one of the most controversial public works projects in the area’s history.

 

Proponents of building the road say it is needed to route traffic from southern Hays County away from South Austin neighborhoods and to complete the planned SH 45 loop. Opponents say the highway is routed over some of the most sensitive parts of the recharge zone of the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer and would put the region’s groundwater supply at risk.

 

The roadway was first planned in the mid-1980s, and has been in policy gridlock ever since. A recent move to remove the project from federal funding (and tougher environmental standards) and put it on a fast track to construction brought the simmering issue to the front burner. That brought many of the usual suspects to Commissioners Court Tuesday.

 

The speakers were divided relatively evenly, with maybe a slight edge in numbers to Austin’s environmental community, who have fought the project at every turn. And the leader of that coalition, Save Our Springs Alliance’s Executive Director Bill Bunch, once again laid out his group’s opposition in detail.

 

Judge Biscoe, you have said repeatedly that you are committed – if this project goes forward – to the absolute highest environmental protection standards; that it won’t be built without that,” he said. “This interlocal agreement says point-blank we’re just going to follow the standard TxDOT environmental procedures. So you cannot vote for this agreement and live up to what you have said in meeting after meeting after meeting, because it’s not going to happen.”

 

Then Bunch apparently struck a chord, saying “That’s not right. It shouldn’t be part of your legacy.”

 

With that, Biscoe spoke up.

 

“Twenty-five years ago I gave the residents of the Brodie Lane area my word that I would support this project. I’ve kept that word 25 years. That’s why I support it today,” Biscoe said. “You and I have been on opposite sides of this issue for 25 years. That won’t change. If my legacy turns on this one vote, so be it. But I have cast thousands of others that I think are more important, (and ) I guarantee a whole lot of other people think are more important, also. At the appropriate time, we’ll just debate those. I need something to do in retirement anyway, and debating SH 45 Southwest is what I’ll do. Your response?”

 

Bunch continued accusing Biscoe of working on a false premise.

 

“As for your 25 year promise, I respect the integrity you’re suggesting there, but I assume that that promise was made with the idea that SH 45 would actually improve traffic on Brodie Lane. It will not,” Bunch said. “That’s the other thing the state tells us: Traffic keeps getting worse on Brodie with or without SH 45. All they’re saying is that it doesn’t get quite as (bad) with 45.”

 

Biscoe disagreed with Bunch again, saying that SH 45 SW was but a part of a multimodal approach to fixing the region’s traffic problems. Then Biscoe appeared to look into the future and postulate that the argument over the roadway is likely to continue well after his tenure ends.

 

“I wish the new County Judge well,” he said. “After Jan. 1, I’ll be available to help. You  can find me at any fishing hole or the golf course, but if I can help, I’ll be happy to do it. The problem is, this and other big issues won’t go away and those who sit here will try as best they can to make the decisions.”

 

The comment session on the plan to speed up the SH 45 SW process took from around 1:45 p.m. to after 5 p.m. and Biscoe continued to spar with several other critics of the plan. Almost 20 speakers made their case, some briefly and some eloquently, regarding the project. Most had been there numerous times before, but continued to push their long-held position on building or not building the roadway.

 

The project calls for Travis County to put up $15 million while Hays County will put in $5 million toward the cost of the road. The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority will build the toll road for about $100 million, and pay that money back with proceeds from operating the road. The Texas Department of Transportation is performing an environmental impact statement on the plan, which will not be completed until sometime in 2015. (See Austin Monitor, Feb. 11)

 

Biscoe announced as the items came up Tuesday that Commissioners would not take a vote this week, but would consider whether to go forward with the plan March 18.

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