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SH 45: The Road to Commissioners Court?

Karen Huber and Gerald Daugherty face off over a highway in southwestern Travis County

By Mike Kanin, Fri., Oct. 5, 2012

The on-again, off-again plan to build SH 45 is a point of controversy in the Travis County Precinct 3 commissioners race.
The on-again, off-again plan to build SH 45 is a point of controversy in the Travis County Precinct 3 commissioners race.

Just in case anyone doubts that Gerald Daugherty wants to link his campaign to retake the Travis County Precinct 3 Com­mis­sioners Court seat to the construction (and current lack) of State Highway 45, the once and would-be-future commissioner last week unveiled a new bumper sticker. "Want SH 45 SW Built?" it asks, and answers: "Vote for Gerald Daugherty."

State Highway 45 is the long-debated stretch of highway in southwestern Travis County that would connect FM 1626 with MoPac – that is, if it's ever built. Residents of the Shady Hol­low neighborhood – who insist that it will relieve traffic congestion in the area, particularly along Slaughter and Brodie Lanes – want it badly. As does the Hays County Commissioners Court. But SH 45 has run into trouble at both Austin City Hall and in the Travis County Commissioners Court. City officials have voted to request that the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization pull the project from its 2035 Regional Transportation Plan – and then, just Thursday, voted to pull that request until a flawed traffic study on the project can be completed, a move that would seem to delay a scheduled Oct. 8 CAMPO vote on the matter. That all came after county commissioners voted in a heated 2010 discussion to take the 3½-mile stretch out of the region's growth plan.

Commissioner Karen Huber, who beat Daugherty to claim the Precinct 3 seat in 2008, is also at the center of this debate. Depending on whom you ask, she either promised Shady Hollow residents a positive vote for SH 45 during her campaign, and then reneged (Shady Hollow), or has always been, as she insists, somewhat firmly undecided about the matter – pending proof that it would positively affect traffic in the region.

This brings us to the flawed traffic study. In mid-September both online In Fact Daily and the Austin American-Statesman's Ben Wear ran articles detailing a bad miscalculation on the part of number crunchers involved in that effort. "City of Austin officials, reviewing the study, quickly noticed that it assumed that population and employment figures in 2025 in about half of the area studied in southern Travis County and northern Hays County would decrease over the next 13 years," wrote Wear. "That would fly in the face of predictions of continued growth throughout Central Texas."

Wear reports that city officials diagnosed the problem. Hays County Commissioner and current CAMPO Chair Will Conley told Wear that the study mix-up – which predicted only slight traffic reductions with the construction of a four-lane tollway – was "an embarrassment to [CAMPO] and certainly hurts our credibility." Conley, for the record, is pro-SH 45.

Meanwhile, on Sept. 14, Daugherty fired off a mailer to constituents which, in part, tried to place regional traffic congestion in Huber's lap. That message starts in the second paragraph: "If you have spent much time driving around on our roads, you know that traffic is a serious problem that continues to get worse. In fact, the average person spends 82 minutes a day trying to get through the congestion," he writes, before turning on his underline and bold tools. "That's over 350 hours, or two full weeks, over the course of the year!" Huber has responded to Daugherty's figures by citing a 2011 Texas Traffic Institute study that found peak-hour delay times have ticked slightly down during the course of Huber's tenure, although the causes of such changes can be multiple and not solely the result of road construction.

There is, of course, more to this ongoing highway argument than what lies between Daugherty's bumper sticker and Huber's response. For starters, it remains unclear whether a Daugherty victory would bring a courtwide "yes" vote for SH 45. There are, after all, four other commissioners – two of whom voted against the idea in 2010 – who would have to agree to move ahead with the project.

Beyond that question, mitigation costs for the project could be astronomical. The SH 45 route cuts through an exceptionally sensitive region of the Balcones Canyon­lands Preserve, one that includes at least one huge cave – a potential habitat for endangered species – that may prove hard to go around or find a replacement for. Mitigation through preservation of another site of similar importance – if one could be found – could, in theory, get road builders off the hook. "A city of Austin position paper on SH 45 SW issued last year noted that the route of the highway is attempting to 'thread the needle' near Flint Rock Cave and the adjacent Bear Creek," reported In Fact in June. "Environmental studies are needed to determine how the highway might impact the subsurface drainage and moisture that the cave species rely on, city officials said."

As for the mitigation option, In Fact quoted a doubtful assessment from a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist: "We're not aware of any cave features that would offer the level of protection" that Balcones Canyonlands Preserve does.

Not that all this matters much, at least in campaign season. Daugherty seems determined to continue plugging away at road issues. Just how much reach he'll have remains uncertain. At last check, his campaign had roughly $25,000 on hand. Huber had more than $100,000.

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