Thursday, June 16, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

CTRMA goes shopping for partner to build SH 45 SW

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority on Tuesday took another major step toward the construction of a highly controversial road project in southwestern Travis County.

With a vote of 6-0, its board of directors directed CTRMA staff to start shopping for bids from contractors interested in building State Highway 45 Southwest. Director Bob Bennett, a Williamson County appointee, was not present for the vote.

SH 45 SW, a 3.6-mile stretch of limited access toll road, would connect the southern terminus of MoPac Expressway in Austin to FM 1626 on the other side of the Hays County line. The road has been on the drawing board since at least the 1980s, and Travis County voters approved money to buy its right-of-way in 1997.

However, the project’s path across the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone has drawn fierce opposition from environmental advocates, including the Save Our Springs Alliance, which has sued CTRMA to block construction.

Before Wednesday’s vote, Mike Rawlins of the Austin Chamber of Commerce spoke to the board to endorse SH 45 SW. He was followed by Bob Moore, senior policy aide for Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty. Moore explained that Daugherty was unable to make it to the meeting but that he wanted Moore “to voice his impassioned plea to the board to move forward on this project.”

“Over the last couple of weeks,” Moore continued, “Commissioner Daugherty has questioned whether to fill this boardroom with other impassioned residents of southwest Travis County about the dire need for this road — because he could get them here by the busload.”

Moore said that ultimately, Daugherty decided that residents have already made their voices resoundingly heard.

“He believes his support of this road was probably the primary reason he was re-elected in 2012,” Moore said of his boss. “The message from the residents has been clearly made: They want this project done.”

Justin Word, CTRMA’s director of engineering, laid out the item to the board. He noted that the authority is counting on $108.9 million in funding for the project from regional sources. Travis County has committed $15 million, while Hays County will pay $5 million. The Texas Department of Transportation is set to cover the difference.

Word said the estimated cost of construction alone is $76 million, but he added that that could change based on the response from the market.

“Should you choose to move this forward, then we will get an answer related to that number,” Word said. “And that is a very critical element in determining where we sit in our overall financing structure.”

Word also emphasized that the vote would not commit the authority to breaking ground on the project. He said that the solicitations will go out at the end of June and bids are expected to be received by July 22. If all goes according to schedule, Word said, the board could vote in October to move forward with construction.

Word’s presentation also outlined several of the notable steps the authority is taking to mitigate the road’s environmentally obtrusive qualities. He reviewed the rainwater runoff system, the plan to install gates on caves that are home to endangered species and the staffing of a full-time environmental compliance manager.

“We have a number of subject matter experts here today if y’all have questions,” Word offered at the end of his briefing. The board, which has been accused by critics of acting as a rubberstamp for CTRMA executives, declined to accept his invitation.

David Armbrust, one of Travis County’s three appointees, told Word that he had originally hoped the roadway would be in compliance with the city of Austin’s Save Our Springs Ordinance.

“Along the way I know you’ve tried, and you’ve looked at different alternatives,” said Armbrust. But, he said, “I believe that, although we’re not quite at SOS, we’re close. I think what we’re doing is responsible.”

Armbrust continued, “We’re not voting to construct the road at this point, and I want to make clear, with that understanding, I’m going to support the idea of going out for bids because I’d like to see what the costs are.”

With no other questions or comments from the dais, Armbrust motioned for approval. Nikelle Meade, another Travis County appointee, seconded, and the board approved the item.

When reached for comment after the vote, Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea, an outspoken opponent of SH 45 SW, told the Austin Monitor, “That’s unfortunate.”

Shea said SH 45 SW goes hand in hand with two other CTRMA projects — MoPac South and MoPac Intersections — to turn MoPac Expressway into a western bypass of Interstate 35 through Austin. She said that by breaking up the project into three smaller parts, the authority is skirting federal rules that require a more thorough environmental study.

Ultimately, Shea predicted, the project could imperil Barton Springs Pool. “If they’re allowed, by neglect or design, to ruin our chief environmental jewel, shame on all of us, but especially shame on them,” Shea declared.

Bill Bunch of the SOS Alliance told the Monitor that the board’s vote was “not unexpected.” He said he remains confident that his group’s lawsuit will prevail and dismissed CTRMA’s hopes to start construction this fall as “ridiculous.” Bunch said he expects the suit to go to trial at the end of 2016 or in early 2017.

Rendering courtesy of CTRMA

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

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.

Save Our Springs Alliance (SOS): An advocacy organization. According to its web site, Save Our Springs "works to protect the Edwards Aquifer, its springs and contributing streams, and the natural and cultural heritage of the Hill Country region and its watersheds, with special emphasis on Barton Springs."

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