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Then There's This: Dangerous Path

Commissioners commit to $15 million toll project, minus enviro study

By Amy Smith, Fri., March 21, 2014

Then There's This: Dangerous Path

Putting pedal to the metal before the likely arrival of two progressives on the Travis County Commissioners Court early next year, commissioners on Tuesday nailed taxpayers to a $15 million debt to pay for a controversial toll road over the Edwards Aquifer.

How's that for thinking outside the box?

The vote followed emotional, sometimes heated, testimony for and against State Highway 45, a long-debated road project that would connect the south end of MoPac to FM 1626. The 4-1 decision, with Com­mis­sioner Ron Davis dissenting, marked another milestone for Commissioner Gerald Daugh­erty, a rail opponent who's fast-tracking his quest to turn dirt on the project that's been on and off the front burner for more than two decades. He was joined by interim Pct. 2 Commissioner Bruce Todd, Pct. 4 Commissioner Margaret Gómez, and outgoing Judge Sam Biscoe, who said he didn't want to leave office without fulfilling the SH 45 pledge he made to voters 25 years ago.

Pulling a Fast One

With the March 4 Dem­ocratic primary results all but assuring November victories for Sarah Eckhardt as county judge and Brigid Shea as Pct. 2 commissioner – both strongly opposed to SH 45 – Daugherty wasted no time making an end run around potential barriers before the Commissioners Court shifts to an anti-SH 45 majority in January. Daugherty placed the road-funding proposal on the commissioners' March 11 agenda, drawing immediate criticism from opponents who accused him of trying to hurry it through at a time when many people were off on spring break or distracted by SXSW. In deference to those concerns, Biscoe moved the vote to this week.

The swift action also raises concerns about proceeding with the toll project before the Texas Department of Transportation has completed its environmental impact study, which it expects to wrap up late this year or early next. The 3.6-mile route travels across a recharge area of the Barton Springs segment of the aquifer, and comes within worrying distance of the Flint Ridge Cave, a federally protected habitat for endangered species.

Commissioners heard about two hours of testimony last week and again on Tuesday. Biscoe and Save Our Springs Executive Director Bill Bunch entered into a somewhat lengthy but altogether civil debate over the merits of the project last week, and this week Daugherty and Bunch got into an exchange that carried an undercurrent of tension, no doubt stemming from a criminal complaint Bunch had filed against Daugherty the day before, accusing the commissioner of illegally deleting emails and text messages related to SH 45. (See "SOS Files Complaint Against Daugherty," p.14.) "Are you following me, Commissioner Daugh­er­ty?" Bunch asked at one point during his testimony. "No, Bill, I generally don't follow you," Daugh­er­ty snapped.

Of course, Eckhardt and Shea also weighed in on the tollway. In a letter submitted last week, Eckhardt asked that commissioners not rush the matter "in a way that will miss opportunities and create unfortunate consequences for the pro-45 Court of today and the anti-45 Court that is likely in 2015."

Eckhardt also suggested putting more careful thought into the financing of the $100 million project to ensure that Travis County is not left holding the bag should the project go belly up. Under the terms of the interlocal agreement approved Tuesday, the county would pay $2.5 million to Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority by June 30 and the remaining $12.5 million by Oct. 30. Hays County, which stands to benefit the most from the tollway, is only kicking in $5 million – $500,000 due June 30, and the rest paid within 20 days after CTRMA notifies the two counties that it intends to start soliciting construction bids. The remainder of the costs will be covered by a $32 million grant from CTRMA and TxDOT, and another $48 million that CTRMA intends to borrow, county officials said.

Shea, who addressed commissioners in testimony last week, noted that in the case of SH 45, history may have a way of repeating some similar mistakes of the past.

"Some of the same groups that are pushing so hard on this project were the same ones pushing so hard on the [SH] 130 toll road and Water Treatment Plant 4" – two controversial projects that environmentalists predicted would haunt taxpayers for years to come. "None of us in the environmental community want to be saying 'We told you so,' but yet that's where we find ourselves today." Indeed, SH 130 failed to live up to elected officials' promise that the now nearly bankrupt toll road would pay for itself and relieve traffic congestion on I-35. The same holds true for WTP4, which was sold to the public as a "must-have" project that wouldn't result in increased water rates.

"Loading more public debt on before there is full information [to] make really well-informed decisions hurts the public trust. There will be some major bond elections coming up that will require us to say to the public, 'Trust us, this is the right thing to do,'" Shea said, referring to upcoming voter decisions on rail, a new courthouse, and school bonds. "I just think you have to proceed very carefully ... I do urge you to wait to make your decision."

As commissioners saw it, however, running out the clock on SH 45 would effectively kill it.

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