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SH45 SW opponents say roadway would cause damage to aquifer

Wednesday, April 2, 2014 by Kara Nuzback

State officials expect to have an environmental impact study of the proposed four-lane State Highway 45 Southwest ready for public review within the next two months. Challengers of the toll road plan say it would expose the Barton Springs zone of the Edwards Aquifer and natural features above it to damage and pollutants, and do little to relieve traffic congestion.

Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District heard a presentation last week from Texas Department of Transportation Director of Environmental Affairs Carlos Swonke, detailing a proposal for the highway, which Swonke says would cut down on travel times for commuters now using local roads, such as Manchaca Road, Slaughter Lane and Brodie Lane, as major throughways.

State Highway 45 was a long-range plan developed in the 1980s by the Texas Department of Transportation, envisioned as a loop around the Austin metro area.While other segments of the loop were completed years ago, the SH45 SW segment lay dormant until the project was revived by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization in the late 1990s to address growth in southern Travis and northern Hays counties.

Since the project is about 80 percent state funded, Swonke said, TxDOT is tasked with advancing the proposal until construction begins. The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority would then procure a contractor, oversee construction and maintain the road.

The project would be a toll road, said Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who is perhaps the most ardent supporter of the project.

In 1990, after a lawsuit was filed by Save Barton Creek Association against the Federal Highway Administration and TxDOT, the aquifer district board, as an intervener in the case, settled with TxDOT in exchange for a consent decree that promised SH45 SW would be constructed as a parkway with limited access points.


Several environmentalists testified against the SH45 SW proposal at the aquifer district board’s March 27 meeting, including Save Barton Creek Association President Steve Beers. He said besides Flint Ridge Cave, about 300 critical environmental features lie along the proposed right-of-way.


Beers said SH45 SW would be a tax-subsidized toll road, and would save only a few minutes of travel time. He urged the board to find out whether the consent decree was binding.


Dick Kallerman of the Austin chapter of the Sierra Club, echoed Beers’ comments, saying the improvement to traffic congestion would be miniscule and not worth exposing the aquifer to damage.


“We could live without it very easily,” Kallerman said of SH45 SW.


Austin resident Roger Baker also said the highway would not alleviate much congestion, and urged the board to find out how much debt would be accrued from its construction.


Adam Abrams, attorney for the Save Our Springs Alliance, said it is the conservation district board’s job to protect the aquifer, and it should take no action on the proposal until TxDOT releases an environmental impact study.


Board President Gary Franklin said the board’s stance on the project is neutral. He said the presentation was a way for the board to get ahead of the plan and make sure the aquifer was protected.


The conservation district board is one of several governmental agencies providing input for the SH45 SW project; others include the City of Austin, Travis County and Hays County.


The proposal necessitates an environmental impact study for the area between the southern end of MoPac Boulevard and FM 1626. Earlier this year, CAMPO replaced state funds from the US 183A project with SH45 SW federal funds. That means the environmental 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.


The draft environmental impact study will likely be made public in May, Swonke said. A public hearing on the study is tentatively scheduled for July, and the final environmental impact analysis will likely be completed in January, he said.


However, with new elected officials (and potential SH45 SW opponents) taking office on the Travis County Commissioners Court in January, the roadway’s backers have stated that they want to wrap up the environmental study before the end of 2014.


To minimize the carbon footprint of the four-lane highway, Swonke said TxDOT is considering using permeable friction course pavement, a porous type of concrete that improves drivability in wet weather conditions and filters pollutants from storm water runoff.


Other tools to prevent pollutant runoff, such as hazardous material traps and vegetative filter strips, Swonke said, will allow TxDOT to remove up to 90 percent of pollutants from the proposed roadway.


The environmental impact study will also evaluate the effect of the roadway and its construction on Flint Ridge Cave, which is located on Austin Water Quality Protection Lands and serves to recharge the Edwards Aquifer.


Swonke said the presentation was a chance for TxDOT to present information about the project, not drum up support.


For more information about the project, click here.

Aquifer District General Manager John Dupnik said Swonke would also speak at a module dedicated to roadway projects at the Kent Butler Summit, set for April 25 at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. For more information on the summit, visit the information page on the city website.

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