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Environmental concerns delay city action on upcoming MoPac project

Tuesday, November 21, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

Several City Council members want more information about the planned expansion of MoPac Expressway before they sign off on a key funding agreement with the Texas Department of Transportation.

Council voted 9-2 at its Nov. 9 meeting to postpone an amendment to its year-old partnership with TxDOT that would increase the city’s original $1.8 million commitment to pay for the relocation and improvement of water and wastewater lines along the area of the work. The new cost is $2.4 million.

According to a staff memo included the item’s backup material, the original cost was an engineer’s estimate but the new figure represents the lowest bid TxDOT received for the work.

“Possible reasons for the bid price could be due to aggressive construction schedule, limited working space, extensive traffic controls, market conditions, and limited work resources affected by the recent Hurricanes, etc.,” the memo states.

TxDOT is working with the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority to lower the freeway through existing signalized intersections at Slaughter Lane and La Crosse Avenue. According to the CTRMA’s website, work is scheduled to begin in early 2018. However, TxDOT cannot begin relocating the water lines until it receives the city’s payment.

At the Nov. 9 meeting, several speakers urged Council to postpone that disbursement. Lauren Ross, a civil engineer, claimed that TxDOT’s findings that the road project would not adversely affect Barton Springs and its native blind salamanders were based on “unfounded research.”

“The research they relied on did not consider arsenic, cadmium, lead, chromium, mercury, chlorinated hydrocarbons, pesticides, asbestos, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or even the most obvious measures for gasoline and motor oil,” said Ross.

Bill Bunch of the Save Our Springs Alliance also warned that the project could threaten environmentally sensitive Edwards Aquifer features beneath it. He also urged postponement and holding TxDOT accountable for those concerns.

“The city taking additional time here to look at this and try to make sure that we’re not creating a hazard for the springs forever … is not too much to ask,” Bunch said.

Council Member Leslie Pool said that she had raised questions about the project’s environmental standards at the most recent meeting of the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Planning Organization Coordinating Committee, which she co-chairs.

“I will say that the TxDOT engineer who was there gave vague answers that were insufficient in answering my questions,” she recounted.

Pool suggested that the postponement would give staff an opportunity to gather more information. Specifically, she said she wanted to know more specifics about the cost increase, environmental impacts, and TxDOT’s mitigation plans.

The talk of postponing the payment came as a surprise to Council Member Ellen Troxclair, in whose District 8 the scope of the project is located. She pointed out that the item had been publicly posted for two weeks. In that period, none of her colleagues had expressed interest in delaying it.

“Had I known this would be an issue, this room would be full of Southwest Austin citizens who would tell you how important this project is to my district,” she said. “And I think it’s really disrespectful to have not raised this before now and to have not given them the opportunity to do that.”

Troxclair and Council Member Jimmy Flannigan were the only opposition votes against the postponement. Council will take up the item again at its Dec. 14 meeting.

Photo by Lars Plougmann made available through a Creative Commons license.

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