Tuesday, November 8, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

Construction set to start on SH 45 SW

A drawn-out, polarizing political battle that has kept anxious observers on the edges of their seats could be effectively settled for good on Tuesday.

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority announced on Monday that crews could begin construction on the controversial State Highway 45 Southwest project this week.

Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, perhaps the most outspoken champion of the 3.6-mile toll road project, told the Austin Monitor that he expects the work to begin on Tuesday, coincidentally the same day that voters will decide on a surfeit of races, from U.S. president on down to Daugherty’s own quest for re-election in Precinct 3.

“I couldn’t be happier,” Daugherty said. “This has needed to happen for a long, long time.”

For the Commissioners Court’s lone Republican, the start of construction is the culmination of one of the principle promises he made when he ran for office in 2012.

“I said I was going to do everything in my power to see that this thing got started, and lo and behold, I think I’ve delivered on that,” Daugherty said. He added, though, that he’s not a one-issue officeholder. “I think I’ve delivered on the budget, and I think I’ve delivered on a number of things.”

Daugherty’s Democratic rival, David Holmes, conceded the apparent inevitability of SH 45 SW, a project largely opposed by members of his own party. He also acknowledged Daugherty’s role in pushing past the finish line a project with bipartisan support from residents looking for a new highway that could divert traffic from corridors such as Brodie Lane.

“But now there are a whole host of issues, from women’s health to the direction of county government and transportation in general, that have to be dealt with, and we need a new set of eyes on those problems,” Holmes told the Monitor.

The original plan for SH 45 SW was conceived in 1985. Twelve years later, in 1997, Travis County voters approved $3.7 million to purchase right-of-way for the roadway to extend from the southern terminus of the MoPac Expressway to FM 1626 just on the other side of the Travis-Hays county line.

Critics have long opposed the plan on environmental grounds. The road would stretch across the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone as well as several sensitive habitats of endangered or threatened species. Groups including the Save Our Springs Alliance sued the CTRMA and Texas Department of Transportation in order to seek a more rigorous environmental study of the SH 45 SW proposal and two other projects it would connect to, MoPac Intersections and MoPac South.

Last month, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the group’s request for an injunction against the commencement of construction. The case is still set for a trial in early 2017. Bill Bunch, the head of the SOS Alliance, could not be reached for comment on Monday afternoon.

In a press release, CTRMA Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein downplayed any environmental concerns about SH 45 SW.

“This project was developed with a delicate balance in mind – meeting the population’s need for new infrastructure, while still taking appropriate measures to protect our environment,” he said.

Travis County, Hays County and the TxDOT contributed to the $109 million budget that the CTRMA has set for the project. If all goes according to plan, work will wrap up in 2019, nearly 35 years after state officials first drew up plans for SH 45 SW.

Mulling on that long, tortuous process, Daugherty quipped, “I don’t know whether people are happier that the project is getting started or that the election will be over tomorrow.”

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.

Precinct 2

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."

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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