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Riley, Cole continue to oppose SH45 SW in CAMPO’s 2040 Plan

Thursday, June 12, 2014 by Andy Sevilla

Austin Council Member Chris Riley and Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole voiced continued opposition to State Highway 45 Southwest toll road project at the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization Transportation Policy Board meeting Monday.

Riley and Cole opposed including SH45 SW in the CAMPO 2040 Plan. Riley was carrying Council Member Bill Spelman’s proxy and voted against the road on behalf of his colleague.

“I remain opposed to the construction of the road (SH45 SW), and expect to continue voting against it,” Riley said.

Mayor Lee Leffingwell did not side with his Council colleagues.

In a June 9 memo from Austin Transportation Department Director Robert Spillar to the Council hours before the CAMPO meeting, he urged opposition to SH45 SW and future planned expressways to move traffic on that toll road to I-35. Spillar said those projects, along with a proposed six-lane toll road in Lakeway and the extension of Escarpment Boulevard onto FM 1826 in Buda, are contradictory to the Imagine Austin plan, and/or established council policy.

“Our transportation staff made a good point that those projects were inconsistent with our comprehensive plan and raise various concerns,” Riley said.

Chief among those worries were environmental concerns for the Edwards Aquifer, a major groundwater source for Travis and Hays counties. Riley said SH45 SW traverses “our most sensitive land” over the aquifer, and that roadway has “very questionable” benefits to transportation.

In a Kyle Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon May 27, Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Mark Jones told the packed room of business leaders that SH45 SW would undoubtedly begin construction in 2015. He touted the project as a major mobility accomplishment in addressing traffic woes in a fast-growing region.

“It’s been in the works for 26 years now,” Jones said. “I’ve been involved with it since I became a commissioner (in 2010); and when (Travis County Pct. 3) Commissioner (Gerald) Daugherty was elected, we saw we had a small window to get this thing done.”

With Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe retiring after his term expires this year, and appointed Pct. 2 Commissioner Bruce Todd not seeking election to his seat, the Commissioners Court could find itself  with a new majority on the dais — one that could look unfavorably on SH45 SW.

Jones, however, said that it doesn’t matter who is elected in Travis County; the deal is sealed. He said the county’s $15 million funding share will already have been forwarded to the project before any new faces take their posts at Commissioners Court.

Riley isn’t sold.

“It remains to be seen if it actually is a done deal. Time will tell,” Riley said. “Dirt is not turning on that road yet. And the nature of government projects is they often wind up taking longer than expected. Until it is actually under construction, then I think it’s a little premature to say it’s a done deal.”

The Austin Council has passed a resolution in opposition to SH45 SW, and Riley and Cole carried that message through their dissenting votes on the CAMPO board, a move Cedar Park Mayor Matt Powell questioned.

“For clarification, the Austin City Council has set policy on a road that is not in their jurisdiction?” Powell questioned during deliberations at CAMPO.

Riley responded, “They have, yes.”

“Don’t say ‘they,’ you’re on the city council,” Powell interrupted Riley as the room, including CAMPO board members busted into laughter.

Much of the aquifer that impacts Barton Springs lies outside of the Austin city limits, but that doesn’t mean it’s beyond the city’s area of concern,” Riley later told the Austin Monitor.

“Completing SH45 southwest would mean we’re channeling additional traffic onto the south end of MoPac,” he said. “To suggest that Austin has no interest in MoPac is, I think, contrary to what most Austinites would believe. We have a very direct interest at stake in those issues.”

Further, Riley said CAMPO is a regional board that aids in planning transportation projects in six counties — Bastrop, Burnett, Caldwell, Hays, Travis and Williamson counties — “so it’s perfectly appropriate for us to act on projects that affect the whole region, even if they happen to lie outside of (Austin) city limits.”

Riley and Cole also opposed the inclusion of two proposed expressways from FM1626 to I-35 to the CAMPO 2040 Plan. Those projects could potentially move traffic from MoPac to SH45 SW and onto I-35 in Hays County. One of those roadways is proposed as a four-lane tollway to be constructed in 2030; the other is proposed as a six-lane expressway.

Spillar said in his memo the expressway proposed as a tollway is presently in the CAMPO 2035 Plan, but only for an environmental study. It is proposed for engineering, right of way acquisition, utilities and construction for the 2040 Plan.

Regarding the second expressway, Spillar said it is duplicative of purpose and function as it would run near and parallel to the proposed tolled expressway.

Riley and Cole, with recommendation from city’s transportation staff, also opposed the Garlic Creek Drive project, which is proposed as a four-lane divided arterial in Buda; and the extension of Escarpment Boulevard to connect with FM1826 in Buda. Staff said in the Escarpment extension would traverse Austin Water Quality Protection Lands or conservation easements.

During CAMPO votes, Cole singled out a proposed six-lane toll road in Lakeway extending from RM 620, south of RM 2222, to SH45 and FM 1826. That roadway would essentially create the western extension of the 1984 Outer Loop.

Cole said she brought that project out for a vote, because there is no funding identified for it, it would go through many existing neighborhoods in Austin and Travis County, and in essence would be “bad CAMPO policy.”

Ultimately, the board voted to keep all of those projects in the CAMPO 2040 Plan for now. The “no” voters were joined by Leander Council Member David Siebold, who said he needed more information on those projects.

CAMPO Interim Director Joe Cantalupo said Monday night’s vote kept the more than 800 road projects in the CAMPO 2040 Plan. Those projects were divided into a regional and sub-regional list, and they are to be modeled to identify their significance and affect on the regional transportation system.

The board will have another vote to decide which road projects will make the CAMPO 2040 Plan.

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