Wednesday, January 14, 2015 by Mark Richardson

Travis seeks delay in BSEACD-TxDOT agreement

Travis County Commissioners voted Tuesday to ask the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District board for a three-week postponement of a hearing planned this week on an agreement with the Texas Department of Transportation over environmental standards for the construction of State Highway 45 Southwest.

Commissioners also voted to work with the parties to clear up parts of the agreement that are ambiguous, try to add more environmental protections to the project and push for the creation of a fund from SH45 SW tolls to be used to mitigate any environmental damage caused by the road.

The issue came up last week when the aquifer district scheduled a special meeting to discuss the proposed agreement with TxDOT. The planned meeting took many people — including County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, Commissioner Brigid Shea and Save Our Springs Director Bill Bunch — by surprise. The district canceled last week’s meeting due to a posting error, but it is back on this Thursday’s agenda.

Both Eckhardt and Shea were on the record before taking office of being opposed to the proposed toll road and are concerned that building it could harm the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer and Flint Ridge Cave, a karst formation in the SH45 SW right of way that is home to several endangered invertebrate species.

During comments to Commissioners Court, SH45 SW opponents raised issues with several points in the proposed agreement, which is based on a 1990 Consent Decree that laid out environmental standards for what was then known as “Outer Loop, Segment 3.”

Bunch told Commissioners he had concerns that the agreement did not contain specific language that SH45 SW and Outer Loop, Segment 3 were one and the same. He was also concerned that in the agreement, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority — which has contracted with TxDOT to plan, build and operate the roadway — was not specifically bound by the rules in the consent decree.

“(It) creates a legal question about what they are really establishing with this language, that these are two different roads and we can make a fabulous consent decree for Segment 3 of the Outer Loop, but hey, we’re not building that road. It is a different road. That’s the legal question we want to clarify,” Bunch said.

At that point, CTRMA general counsel Andrew Martin surprised most everyone by pulling out a Jan. 7 version of the agreement that deleted a clause about his agency not being party to the settlement. The date on the draft agreement posted for consideration on the aquifer district website was Dec. 23 and still included the offending clause.

Brushing aside worries over the particulars of the agreement, Martin pointed out that many of the environmental standards in the original consent decree have been replaced by more modern and more effective means, and that is what is reflected in the proposed agreement with the aquifer district. He said that all environmental standards in the agreement would meet or exceed those set out in the consent decree.

At that point, Eckhardt essentially called a timeout and refocused the discussion on the original proposal, that the court wanted the aquifer district to delay the TxDOT contract until the county had time to study it.

Commissioners later took up the issue in executive session with the county attorney’s office and emerged much later in the afternoon to approve the four items regarding the agreement.

There was no word late Tuesday from the aquifer district board on whether it would consider the county’s request for a delay.

 

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District: An entity charged with oversight of a portion the Edwards Aquifer. Groundwater Conservation Districts are established through Texas State legislative approval, under a state law first approved in the 1950s. According to its web site, the BSEACD's charge is "to conserve, protect, and enhance the groundwater resources in its jurisdictional area."

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.

Travis County Commissioners Court: The legislative body for Travis County. It includes representatives from the four Travis County Precincts, as well as the County Judge. The County Judge serves as the chair of the Court.

TxDOT: The transportation agency for the State of Texas.

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