Wednesday, April 22, 2015 by Courtney Griffin

County asks for ‘loop’ road project studies

Travis County is asking the area’s transportation authorities to step back and take a look at the big picture.

In a controversial 2-1 vote, the Travis County Commissioners Court is asking the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority to institute broader studies. The studies would look at the effects of proposed State Highway 45 Southwest and its connecting roadways as one loop instead of isolated projects.

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and Commissioner Brigid Shea voted in favor of the expanded studies, and Commissioner Ron Davis voted in opposition.

At their Tuesday meeting, commissioners requested that CTRMA perform comprehensive environmental and transportation studies on the proposed SH45 SW project, a planned IH-35 connection and the proposed four toll lanes in the MoPac South road project. They asked the transit authority to treat the three projects as one roadway.

The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization 2035 regional plan states that the roads will eventually connect, making a loop around the city, said Shea.

Shea has been an outspoken critic of the MoPac South project, saying that the increased traffic would create additional mobility issues on Cesar Chavez Street and near Austin High School. She is a county representative on CAMPO. On Tuesday, Shea repeatedly voiced her frustration at “our lack of comprehensive planning and studies.”

Eckhardt said she did not know if CTRMA would honor the request for the studies.

“It’s very difficult to know what (the Texas Department of Transportation) and CTRMA are obligated to do since they have removed federal funding from the project,” Eckhardt told the Austin Monitor.

The request for studies was one of three motions taken after commissioners consulted with the county attorney in executive session, discussing the design and construction of SH45 SW as well as a letter from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service it received.

In the letter, the agency voiced concerns about the environmental integrity of the project and provided guidance to the county about remaining in compliance with its Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan.

Commissioners voted on all three motions after spending more than an hour in executive session. During the executive session, Commissioners Margaret Gómez and Gerald Daugherty chose to head home for the day, which distressed Eckhardt.

“This is not how we should proceed as a Commissioners Court — with two members not sitting (to vote) these issues,” Eckhardt said at the conclusion of the meeting.

Both exits were “unexpected,” and Eckhardt told the Monitor that she was unsure why the commissioners left.

A motion for Travis County to work with CTRMA to include state-of-the-art stormwater controls along SH45 SW passed on a 3-0 vote.

Cutting-edge stormwater controls will help mitigate the environmental impact on the federally protected Flint Ridge Cave and other BCCP-protected areas, Eckhardt said.

The SH45 SW road project is being funded by local and state, but not federal, dollars. The absence of federal funding means the project will not be held to Washington’s more rigorous environmental standards that would otherwise govern major construction across the recharge zone.

Instead, 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, but the standard is still considerably lower than the City of Austin’s Save Our Springs ordinance, which requires zero impact in terms of pollutants added to the area.

Since the county has no way of knowing if the higher design standards will still be adequate to avoid noncompliance with the BCCP or Endangered Species Act, Eckhardt also moved that CTRMA share the county’s risk if mandates from either were broken. The motion passed in a 3-0 vote.

Eckhardt told the Monitor that she believes the county does have some leverage in requiring state roadway authorities to comply with the county’s concerns. She pointed to an interlocal agreement signed March 18, 2014, between the City of Austin, Travis County and CTRMA.

“The only parties currently at risk right now are the city and the county,” Eckhardt said. “And that’s inappropriate given the interlocal agreement signed by the previous court (that) made it a condition of the money to the CTRMA that the design not imperil our obligations under the (BCCP) and the Environmental Species Act.”

Image courtesy of CTRMA.

 

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

CAMPO: The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization is the regional planning organization for Bastrop, Burnet, Caldwell, Hays, Travis, and Williamson Counties. Its membership is drawn from the elected officials of those municipalities, as well as various cities that fall within the region, including the City of Austin. CAMPO's focus is on regional transportation issues.

Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority: The governing arm of Central Texas transportation. The board of directors is appointed by the governor and the Travis and Williamson County Commissioners Court. 1.5 stars on Yelp.

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.

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.

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