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Hays County Commissioner says plans for SH 45 SW ‘done deal’

Monday, June 2, 2014 by Andy Sevilla

Construction on the estimated $100 million State Highway 45 Southwest toll road connecting northern Hays County to southwest Austin is expected early next year.

“It’s been in the works for 26 years now,” Hays County Pct. 2 Commissioner Mark Jones said. “I’ve been involved with it since I became commissioner three years ago; and when (Travis County Pct. 3) Commissioner (Gerald) Daugherty was elected, we saw we had a small window to get this thing done.”

However, that window could soon be closing.

Travis County approved funding for the SH45 Southwest project with a 4-1 vote in March. Pct. 1 Commissioner Ron Davis was the lone dissenter.

However, come Jan. 1, Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe and Pct. 2 Commissioner Bruce Todd won’t be on the dais. The Democratic candidate for judge, Sarah Eckhardt, has voiced opposition to the toll road, while Todd’s successor — either Democrat Brigid Shea or Republican Raymond Frank — are not likely to support the project. Republican candidate for County Judge Mike McNamara, favors the road but he is unlikely to win the seat in such a heavily Democratic county.

Shea, considered the favorite amongst political circles in Austin, an ardent environmentalist, has come out against SH45 Southwest.

Jones, however, isn’t troubled with a potential future Travis County Commissioners Court majority looking unfavorably on the toll road.

“It does not matter what happens after Jan. 1 in Travis County,” Jones told a packed room of Kyle business leaders Tuesday during his State of the County Address. “Their money will already be hard and on the project.”

Travis County is scheduled to release $2.5 million June 30 toward the project to be held in a trust account, remitting the remaining promissory support of $12.5 million Oct. 30.

Much of the opposition to the toll road comes out of concern of its location over the environmentally sensitive recharge zone of the Barton Springs zone of the Edwards Aquifer.

However, Jones said the 3.6-mile stretch of roadway is long overdue, adding that part of the planning process has involved discussions with professionals regarding environmental concerns. Jones said technology is available to build an environmentally sound road, one that would be safer than Brodie Lane — the road commuters utilize now to get onto MoPac Boulevard.

“All (Hays County) Commissioners and Judge Cobb have been supportive of the road for a long time,” Jones said. “They know the need for mobility in Hays County.”

“It’s something that we’ve needed for a long time. We can’t keep going up Brodie (Lane) to get to Austin,” and I-35 is not a viable solution.

About 70 percent of Kyle and Buda residents commute to Austin for work, according to officials in each city, some of which bypass I-35 and instead commute through FM 1626, onto Brodie Lane in south Austin and connect to MoPac.

During peak hours, I-35 is heavily congested, and what should take about 25 minutes from Austin to Kyle, can take upward of an hour on the interstate.

The cities of Austin, San Marcos and Kyle have signed on to implement a funding mechanism for the 118-mile Lone Star Rail commuter line that would connect Georgetown to San Antonio. Officials in those cities have touted the project as a viable alternative to I-35.

Austin and Kyle have not approved any funding, while San Marcos has agreed to pony up 1 percent of its sales and property tax growth within a half-mile from the proposed train stations. The Lone Star Rail District is seeking 50 percent of tax growth.

Among the alternatives to I-35, Jones said he campaigned in 2010, the year he was first elected to the Hays County Commissioners Court, on the promise to alleviate traffic woes by improving FM 1626 and getting SH45 Southwest moving.

“They both are long overdue,” he said Thursday. “They should have been done a long time ago.”

Requests for Qualifications (RFQ) were sent out this month in hopes of attracting design and engineering firms to serve as consultants on the project, Jones said. In early June, a draft environmental impact study will be ready for public review.

Although RFQ submittals are due by June 16, Jones said a pre-proposal conference would be held June 3 for any design firm who may have questions before the submittal deadline.

Hays County Commissioners approved $5 million in funding for SH45 Southwest, with the first payment to be made in conjunction with Travis County, who approved $15 million for the road project.

Jones said a design and engineering contract is expected to be finalized in September, after applicants are interviewed and an award is handed down in July.

A final environmental impact study should be available for public review in December, and letting and construction dates for the project should be firmed up in January, Jones said.

Hays County will remit its remaining $4.5 million balance for the project soon before the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority awards a construction bid, if all goes according to plan.

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