Wednesday, March 19, 2014 by Jimmy Maas

Travis Commissioners vote to spend $15 million on SH45 SW

The Travis County Commissioners Court approved spending $15 million in county funds Tuesday toward a plan to extend the southwest portion of State Highway 45 from the end of MoPac Boulevard to FM 1626. The vote fulfilled Travis County’s part of a plan to accelerate construction of the road by the end of this year and before two new members who oppose the road join the court.

 

The vote was four to one, with Pct. 1 Commissioner Ron Davis voting against. It passed despite a second week of mostly negative testimony before the court and a criminal complaint filed against Pct. 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who is the driving force behind the plan to get the roadway built.

 

The Save Our Springs Alliance Monday filed a complaint with County Attorney David Escamilla alleging that Daugherty destroyed public information related to the SH 45 SW project. SOS filed public information requests for Daugherty’s email and text messages twice last year. Those messages are subject to the Texas Public Information Act. Daugherty admitted in a deposition that he deleted email and text messages related to the road but said they were of little importance and could be retrieved eventually.

 

Bill Aleshire, former Travis County Judge and a Shady Hollow resident, said the neighborhood was promised this road a long time ago. Shady Hollow skirts Brodie Lane south of Slaughter Lane.

 

“SH 45 was in the Metropolitan Transportation Plan and punching Brodie directly to connect to 1626 was authorized with the assumption that MoPac would be linked to 1626, as well, to handle the heavy traffic volume as an arterial,” said  Aleshire. “When that didn’t happen, this little two-lane neighborhood street… became the route that the arterial volume of traffic uses to get on MoPac.”

 

The planned 3.5-mile SH 45 SW is the final segment of a Texas Department of Transportation planned loop around Austin in the 1980s. The southwest segment has been delayed for more than two decades because of environmental concerns. At least one study shows that the roadway will only speed up drivers’ commutes by a couple of minutes.

 

Daugherty campaigned in 2012 on getting the road done. He then revealed what he called an “unlikely marriage.” Aleshire and Daugherty allied around the road, even meeting Bill Bunch of SOS for breakfast to discuss the environmental ramifications.

 

“What this road does, it makes the MoPac mess much worse,” said Bunch, “and that’s what the CAMPO’s own traffic study shows.”

 

Bunch and other critics are concerned that the road will open up the area to development. He reminded commissioners that the City of Austin and Travis County hold federal Endangered Species Act permits, part of which includes protecting the sensitive Flint Ridge Cave. Plans have it going over that cave, and perhaps others, which filter the water that directly feeds Barton Springs and the Edwards Aquifer.

 

“You cannot pave over one of the most important caves in the county and comply with your federal permits,” said Bunch. “With this agreement, you’re handing over all the financing, all the decision making to someone else.”

 

Mike Heiligenstein, executive director of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority suggested it’s necessary to move ahead now to ensure funding from TxDOT.

 

The road deal is being done without any federal funds for the $100 million project. Critics say that is so officials can avoid the more stringent environmental regulations that come into play when a project involves federal money.

 

According to Steve Manilla, executive for Transportation and Natural Resources, Travis County will spend $15 million, with $5 million from Hays. The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization and TxDOT will provide a $32 million grant. The regional mobility authority has already spent $450,000 and will finance approximately $48 million from the State Infrastructure Bank. Roadway users will then repay that loan with toll charges.

 

“Everybody in this community understands how environmentally sensitive this piece of ground that we are attempting to build this road on (is),” said Daugherty. “It is my hope… that there are no short cuts, that this will be done as environmentally sensitive as it could possibly be, making sure that you have people working with you that absolutely know what they’re doing.”

 

After the vote, Daugherty was less worried with the environmental impact of building the road, calling concerns a “red herring.”

 

“I just think you can build a road in this country without degrading any sensitive property,” said Daugherty.

 

“We see this as the opportunity to build the most environmentally sensitive road we can,” answered Carlos Swonke, TxDOT’s director of environmental affairs.

 

After the discussion, Bunch seemed resigned to the fact there wouldn’t be enough votes to go against SH 45 SW.

 

“They can’t build it for at least another year,” said Bunch. “It will probably be longer than that. The City of Austin, the Fish and Wildlife Service, TxDOT and others will be weighing in on it. So, this is an important vote, but it’s not going to be decided whether it’s built or not.”

 

In January, the Commissioners Court will have two new members. If they are Democrats Sarah Eckhardt and Brigid Shea, as is probable, they will likely work to undo Tuesday’s decision. Both have expressed strong and continuing opposition to extending the road.

 

Eckhardt is the Democratic nominee for County Judge. Shea, the Democratic nominee for Precinct 2 Commissioner, said she is concerned that rushing the road into construction likely means some environmental corners will be cut in the process.

 

“I made my case…they are rushing it because they are concerned that this will not pass the smell test when the environmental study comes back,” Shea said. “I don’t think this is the kind of leadership this community wants. And the fact that they had to pull this switcheroo with the federal money (at CAMPO)….gives a lie to their claims that they are going to do everything they can to protect the environment.”

 

In order to build the road without using federal funds, CAMPO replaced state funds from the US 183A project with SH45 SW federal funds. That means the Environmental Impact Study now needs to be completed only to TxDOT standards before final designs and construction can begin. A federal impact study would likely take much longer to complete.

 

There will be a public hearing on the preferred route in late summer and then after the environmental process and upon final decision in January 2015. Rodriguez Transportation Group is the primary contractor. Cox McLain and Blanton Associates are spearheading the environmental study.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Bill Aleshire: A former Travis County judge, Aleshire has since been involved in a host of causes. These include the 2011 controversy over what Travis County Attorney David Escamilla eventually found to be Austin City Council violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act, as well as a law suit over City of Austin historic property tax exemptions.

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.

CTRMA: The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority. A governmental agency created, according to its web site, in 2002 to "improve the transportation system in Williamson and Travis counties." The site also notes that the agency's "mission is to implement innovative, multi-modal transportation solutions that reduce congestion and create transportation choices that enhance quality of life and economic vitality." In addition to other responsibilities, the agency oversees a set of toll roads in the region.

Edwards Aquifer: This groundwater region extends from Travis south to Bexar, and then west to Edwards and Kinney counties in Texas.

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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