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Friday, April 17, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

US Fish and Wildlife concerned about SH 45 SW

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sent letters to Mayor Steve Adler, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and others Wednesday, expressing concerns about the potential environmental impacts of the proposed State Highway 45 Southwest on the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan, or BCCP. Eckhardt has called for a hold on current plans for the highway.

In the letter to Eckhardt, Fish and Wildlife Field Supervisor Adam Zerrenner addressed questions that city and county officials have raised since January about how the project could impact the BCCP incidental take permit the agency issued to both parties in 1996. The 30-year permit allows them to enter into activities that could affect threatened or endangered species.

“The BCCP covers eight federally listed species and 27 unlisted species,” Zerrenner wrote. “Flint Ridge Cave is listed on the BCCP permit as mitigation for unlisted species and is located near the proposed (SH) 45 SW project.”

Fish and Wildlife, Zerrenner continues, is “concerned that the proposed SH 45 SW project may impact the ‘environmental integrity’ of Flint Ridge cave and the covered non-listed species located in the cave, given the close proximity of the proposed road to the cave entrance.”

Zerrenner goes on to note ways that the city and county can “remain in good standing” with their incidental take permit if the highway impacts the cave and the species within.

These options, Zerrenner said, include substituting Flint Ridge Cave with a different “mitigation cave” in order to continue protecting certain cave-dwelling species elsewhere, or pursue a “major amendment” to remove covered species from the permit.

SH 45 SW, which is a partnership between TxDOT and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, would be a four-lane toll road connecting south MoPac Boulevard to FM 1626. The Texas Department of Transportation, or TxDOT, completed the final Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, for the highway in January, and cleared it for construction in March.

The project would not use federal funds and currently does not require federal approval, Watershed Protection Environmental Officer Chuck Lesniak told the Austin Monitor Thursday.

Eckhardt wrote a letter to CTRMA Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein Thursday stating her concern that SH 45 SW will “jeopardize Travis County’s standing under the permit” and requesting that the CTRMA suspend engineering design for the project until the issue is resolved.

“As you know, Travis County paid the CTRMA $15,000,000 under the March 2014 lnterlocal Cooperation Agreement for SH 45 SW on the condition that the CTRMA design, construct, and maintain SH 45 SW in a manner that does not result in Travis County failing to comply with its obligations under the (BCCP),” Eckhardt wrote.

“This will not only allow time for the affected entities to address the concerns of (Fish and Wildlife),” Eckhardt continued, “but will also avoid expenditures on engineering design work that ends up having to be redone in the future.”

The interlocal agreement Eckhardt referred to is between Travis County, Hays County and the CTRMA.

Representatives of TxDOT and the CTRMA were not prepared to comment on the issue when reached by the Monitor Thursday.

Zerrenner also wrote that Fish and Wildlife Texas Transportation Liaison Darren LeBlanc has said that, “although TxDOT has revised the (draft) EIS to address some of the comments they received, the concerns expressed in the Service’s letter remain regarding potential impacts to the golden-cheeked warbler, the two federally-listed salamanders, and the species of concern in Flint Ridge Cave.”

LeBlanc and Zerrenner were referring to a letter Fish and Wildlife sent to TxDOT in August 2014 that provided the agency’s comments on what was at the time a draft EIS.

The golden-cheeked warbler is a species of migratory bird found in Central Texas that is on both the state and federal endangered species list and the Barton Springs and Austin Blind salamanders are federally endangered species known to live exclusively in Barton Springs.

Conceptual rendering of State Highway 45 Southwest courtesy of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority.

 

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Balcones Canyonland Conservation Plan: Established in 1996, the Balcones Canyonland Conservation Plan set rights and standards for incidental "take" of eight endangered species, jointly, for the City of Austin and Travis County.

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.

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