TxDOT Scuttles SH 45 South -- For Now

For the time being, SH 45 South is off the table.

The western end of SH 45 South, which some environmentalists feared would increase demand to build in the Barton Springs Watershed, isn't completely disappearing from the state Department of Transportation's map -- it just won't be built as soon as everyone thought.

Recently the Texas Turnpike Authority, a division of TxDOT, terminated its agreement, previously approved by the Texas Transportation Commission, with a consortium headed by developer Gary Bradley and San Antonio-based H.B. Zachry Construction to build the portion of SH 45 South from FM 1626 to SH 130 -- the north-south toll road that will pass through eastern Travis County. Submitted two years ago, the unsolicited proposal by Zachry and Bradley -- operating as Trans Corridor Constructors -- would have linked South MoPac to I-35 via a toll road, thereby transforming MoPac into a regional bypass to I-35. TxDOT and the Zachry/Bradley group couldn't reach a satisfactory agreement on terms for construction, says TxDOT spokesman Bill Powell, and the agency called the deal off after realizing no agreement was in sight. "It was an administrative decision," said Powell. Though TxDOT is a public agency, Powell said he couldn't provide specifics. "It's our policy not to comment on internal negotiations," he said.

TxDOT will proceed with plans for seven miles of SH 45 South east of I-35, which will link I-35 to U.S. 183 and eventually SH 130. TxDOT must seek environmental clearance and select a final route for that eastern stretch, which presents much less environmental impact than the portion proposed by Zachry/Bradley. Powell didn't know when construction would begin, but said "as quickly as possible," due to high demand for the road.

H.B. Zachry spokeswoman Vicky Waddy says the company was not alarmed by TxDOT's decision, expressed in a June 17 letter to the company. "We knew the letter was coming," she said. "There were some concerns about whether all the involved parties could deliver on their own requirements in order to make the project go."

While some critics of the Zachry/Bradley proposal speculate that the state ended negotiations due to Bradley's heavily publicized financial problems -- including at least $53 million he owes to the federal government, a failed deal to develop 2,500 acres in Buda, and his inability to fork up $4,000 a month in child support payments -- no mention of these problems appears in TxDOT's letter.

"Bad press about Gary Bradley has nothing to do with what TxDOT decides," Bradley said. "My bad press is just a bad coincidence. Their commitment to spend over $1 billion building SH 130 is a little more significant." Bradley didn't say exactly how much money he spent developing the SH 45 proposal (nor would TxDOT disclose any figures), but it was "considerable." He refutes claims that the road was intended mainly to give his potential developments in southwest Travis County quicker service to the airport. When he and Zachry submitted their proposal in 2000, SH 130 wasn't a sure thing, he said. Once TxDOT decided to build the road, "it seemed pointless for our group to go forward. The east is more important than the west only because of 130.

"It was always a misnomer for people to call it the 'Bradley project,'" Bradley continued. He insists he was the one who initiated dialogue with TxDOT to discontinue negotiations. "Sometimes there's casualties along the way," he said, "but it was for a good cause."

Those whose cause is environmental regard TxDOT's decision as a victory. Groups such as the Save Our Springs Alliance and the Sierra Club joined neighborhood groups along MoPac in strongly objecting to the Bradley/Zachry toll road, which they believed would have dramatically increased traffic and development. The Austin City Council also voted to remove that portion of SH 45 South from its transportation plan.

But Circle C Homeowners Association Officer/Director Ken Rigsbee says he's disappointed by the Turnpike Authority's decision, and will probably continue lobbying TxDOT to build the road. And TxDOT yet might do so: The road could become a plan for a regional mobility authority, which shifts responsibility for toll roads onto counties. The segment also could become part of Gov. Rick Perry's new, 50-year Trans Texas Corridor plan, still under development.

Representatives of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, which coordinates regional transportation planning and usage of federal funds in Austin, say the western SH 45 South deal was not an immediate priority. The board (elected leaders from throughout Central Texas) was more concerned about getting the eastern segment up and running; based on population and growth projections, the west-of-I-35 portion didn't seem necessary before 2015. Last summer board members stated their preference that the western part of SH 45 South not be completed until the eastern part was connected to SH 130, mainly to avoid turning MoPac into a bypass for I-35; this condition required an amendment to CAMPO's 2025 Plan. But in February, after Bradley secured approval from the state Transportation Commission to build the eastern part of SH 45 South as a toll road and without federal funds, CAMPO lost its say regarding the timing of its construction, and elected not to amend the existing 2025 plan. Three CAMPO members dissented: Commissioner Karen Sonleitner and City Council Members Daryl Slusher and Will Wynn.

CAMPO's chair, State Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, believes TxDOT made a "wise" decision about SH 45's suspended western segment -- which nevertheless remains in CAMPO's plans, at least on paper. "Now, if somebody's worried about CAMPO approving [it], that priority isn't the same as ours. I think we have our hands full with SH 130, and all the other roadways we're trying to get accomplished here." A northern portion of SH 45, north of the city, is under construction.

As for Bradley, he's taking the whole thing in stride. "I think right now everybody should be happy," he said.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Turnpike Authority, TxDOT, Texas Transportation Commission, SH45 South, MoPac, Barton Springs, Gary Bradley, H.B. Zachry Construction, SH 130, Transcorridor Constructors, Bill Powell, Vicky Waddy, Save Our Springs Alliance, Sierra Club, city council, Circle C Homeowners

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