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County seeks federal guidance on SH45 SW project

Friday, December 19, 2014 by Mark Richardson

Travis County is asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for “guidance” on how to avoid environmental damage to the sensitive Flint Ridge Cave during the construction and operation of the proposed State Highway 45 Southwest toll road.

County officials are requesting that representatives from Fish and Wildlife meet in January with the parties responsible for building the roadway, including Travis County, the City of Austin, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority and the Texas Department of Transportation, to design a plan to avoid environmental damage to the cave.

The 3.5-mile roadway would be a four-lane toll road connecting FM 1626 in Hays County with the south end of MoPac Boulevard in Travis County, and would complete SH45 as a loop around the Austin region. Flint Ridge Cave sits in the current right of way mapped out for SH45 SW. The project has been on the books since the 1980s amid a pitched battle between state and local highway officials, who say it is needed to relieve traffic congestion, and environmentalists, who say that the road would cross one of the most environmentally sensitive parts of the region and should never be built.

Travis County Commissioners, after consulting with the county attorney in executive session Tuesday, authorized a letter to be sent to Fish and Wildlife requesting assistance from the agency. In the letter, acquired Thursday by the Austin Monitor, Judge Sam Biscoe points out that the county — both a financial partner in building SH45 SW and a holder of the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan federal permit — must resolve any environmental issues around the sensitive Flint Ridge Cave formation that might occur during the construction and operation of the roadway.

“A principal goal of the SH45 SW project is to construct and maintain SH45 SW while preserving the environmental integrity of Flint Ridge Cave,” Biscoe wrote. “To meet any mitigation requirements of the BCCP permit for the part of the project beyond 0.25 mile from the cave’s entrance, we propose that the BCCP Infrastructure Participation Certificate process be followed.”

Attached to the letter is a TxDOT report, prepared by environmental consultants SWCA Environmental Services and Cambrian Environmental, analyzing the impact that construction of SH45 SW would have on Flint Ridge Cave. The report points out that the immediate area around the cave is an extremely sensitive part of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer recharge zone and contains a number of karst invertebrates, which are on the federal Endangered Species List.

Despite that, the report concludes: “Based on site characteristics and proposed impacts avoidance and minimization measures, the ecological integrity of Flint Ridge Cave is likely to be maintained.” It went on to note that “construction of the proposed project is not likely to impact the BCCP SOC (species of concern) found within FRC (Flint Ridge Cave).”

The report points to TxDOT’s “extensive experience in constructing and operating roadways in sensitive karst areas,” naming projects such as US 183-A, SH 45 North, RM 1431 and I-35 over Inner Space Cavern as examples of where the organization had preserved the integrity of sensitive karst formations.

TxDOT officials are in the process of finalizing a formal environmental impact statement for SH45 SW, one of the final steps before construction can begin. Funding for the project comes from Travis County, Hays County and TxDOT, and will be financed by bonds through the CTRMA.

Environmental groups such as the Save Our Springs Alliance and the Sierra Club have staunchly opposed the project since it was proposed, specifically pointing to the dangers of potential damage to Flint Ridge Cave.

In 2013, SOS Executive Director Bill Bunch told Commissioners that building the road would threaten several endangered species that live in the cave.

“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.”

The driving force behind getting the roadway built has been Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who would have most of the roadway in his precinct. Daugherty — driven by constituents who say traffic in the area is gridlocked and are demanding the roadway be built — worked with TxDOT and the CTRMA last year to shift federal highway funds away from the project in order to avoid having to do a longer and more involved environmental impact study under federal regulations.

Daugherty’s push to get the project done hinges on the fact that after Jan. 1, he will likely lose the majority on the Commissioners Court that last year approved building the road.  Biscoe and interim Commissioner Bruce Todd both voted for the project but will be leaving the court soon. Their replacements, new County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and Commissioner Brigid Shea, have both expressed opposition to SH45 SW. Commissioner Ron Davis, who also opposed the project in the past, would likely be the third “no” vote.

Travis County has requested that Fish and Wildlife officials meet with the parties backing SH45 SW by Jan. 23.

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