Monday, April 6, 2015 by Courtney Griffin

City says SH45 SW environmental study unsound

Austin’s Environmental Board is looking at its options after hearing from city staff that the approved environmental impact study, or EIS, for State Highway 45 Southwest is not based on sound science.

The EIS was prepared by TxDOT and CTRMA, with assistance from consultants. Chuck Lesniak, environmental officer with the City of Austin, presented the news to board members Wednesday at their regular meeting.

“What we see a lot of in the draft EIS and we see again, unchanged, in the final EIS, is a lot of unsupported conclusions,” Lesniak said. “It’s ‘we believe’ or ‘we think,’ without providing technical documents or references to scientific studies or data that support those conclusions.”

The Texas Department of Transportation gave its final approval March 5 to the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority to begin construction on the road project. The go-ahead formally ended the environmental component of the process, despite concerns raised by the city more than six months ago.

Lesniak told the Austin Monitor that many of the study’s statements included sentences such as, “We don’t believe there will be impacts to Flint Ridge Cave,” without referencing any sort of data or previous scientific studies to support it, which are expected components of reliable reports. Flint Ridge Cave is a federally protected karst feature that is home to several protected invertebrates.

There was an issue with the public comment portion of the process as well, Lesniak said. Officials with TxDOT issued a draft EIS in summer 2014 and opened it for public comment, but the technical report — or the “critical” scientific findings behind the EIS — was issued separately in November. TxDOT notified city, county and other agencies during the December holiday season that they could submit comments, but it did not give this opportunity to the public, he said.

“The technical report looked a lot like the draft EIS,” Lesniak said. “There were a lot of poorly supported or unsupported conclusions that weren’t based in good scientific studies and data.

“And the final EIS misrepresents city studies and public statements that city staff has made on transportation alternatives, car studies and water quality,” Lesniak continued. “In fact, there were a number of cases where they represented the study (as if it) supported a particular position, when in actuality that study came to the opposite conclusion.”

Lesniak gave an example of one of the misrepresentations — a fall 2014 city traffic study that concluded the transportation department could make adjustments on Brodie Lane to ease vehicular congestion. In TxDOT’s study, the opposite conclusion is stated, he said.

Most of TxDOT’s responses to the city, other agencies and concerned residents have been along the lines of “everything is going to be OK, go look at the technical report,” without explaining how the technical report supported the conclusions, Lesniak explained.

City officials do not believe the EIS took a hard look at the alternatives or considered the cumulative impacts of other connected roadway projects, like the proposed MoPac and SH 71 expansions. Lesniak also noted that CTRMA officials will build the project slightly above state water quality standards, which are much lower than the city’s. In 1992 residents voted to enact an ordinance, known as Save Our Springs, that requires zero-impact in terms of pollutants added to the area.

CTRMA officials said the project would follow Texas Commission on Environmental Quality standards, which require the removal of 80 percent of the added Total Suspended Solids from a new development to ensure nondegradation of water quality. CTRMA’s water quality protection measures will remove at least 90 percent of the suspended solids load generated over the Recharge Zone.

Lesniak said that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provided “the most extensive comments on a state EIS” that he has ever seen from a federal agency, and that its comments closely mirrored the city’s concerns.

Roy Waley, conservation chair with the Austin Sierra Club, recommended that the board seek federal intervention on the project during the meeting’s public comment segment.

“They are proposing putting a highway over the top of one of our most critical and environmentally sensitive Recharge Zone areas for the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer,” Waley said, referring to the area around Flint Ridge Cave. “Not only does it potentially endangered species that are federally protected, such as the Austin Blind and Barton Springs Salamander, but this is Golden-Cheeked Warbler and Black-Cap (Vireo) habitat.”

Lesniak said he was not sure what role the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would play in the project, but was certain it would have a role.

CTRMA officials said the Mobility Authority would be responsive to working with any federal agencies as they move forward with project development.

Some of the changes to the project in the final EIS were tweaks to the interchange between MoPac Boulevard and SH45 SW. The road’s layout was also adjusted the road’s location to avoid sinkholes, caves and other recharge features.

Construction may begin as soon as December 2015. Environmental Board Chair Mary Gay Maxwell suggested board members vote on whether to recommend City Council take action on the item. The Environmental Board will vote on the recommendation at an upcoming meeting.

TxDOT declined to comment on the issue.

Rendering of SH 45 SW courtesy of Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Environmental Commission: An advisory board to members of the Austin City Council. Its purview includes "all projects and programs which affect the quality of life for the citizens of Austin." In many cases, this includes development projects.

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.

SH45SW: A controversial road project that supporters argue would ease traffic traveling through areas of far Southwest Travis and far Southeastern Hays County. Opponents argue that the environmental impact of the effort, which runs close to sensitive land, is not worth that risk. The debate over the issue goes back as far as the mid-1980s.

TxDOT: The transportation agency for the State of Texas.

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