Point Austin: Buckle Up

Bumpy political ride ahead for southwest road proposal

Point Austin
Thanks to Hays County, our growth-centric neighbors to the south, the long-delayed State Highway 45 plan is back on the front burner – a slimmer, cheaper, but no less controversial version of its former self.

In late September, Hays County commissioners offered to lay $5 million on the table if Travis County kicked in the remaining $20 million or so to build and maintain a two- to three-lane road that would link FM 1626 in Hays County to an existing arm of SH 45 in southwest Travis County. The idea is that the road would reduce traffic congestion on Brodie Lane by providing Hays County commuters a direct path to MoPac South, which already has its own congestion woes. As proposed, SH 45 would be converted to a county road, thus avoiding years of haggling with the feds over environmental requirements given the proposed route's path across the recharge zone of the Edwards Aquifer and a number of caves, fractures, and sinkholes leading to the aquifer – still the sole source of drinking water for an estimated 60,000 residents.

Does this sound like a good deal for Travis County? If you're the skeptical sort, the knee-jerk answer is "no." But for Brodie Lane-area residents like former County Judge Bill Aleshire, the immediate response is "hells yeah!" In fact, Aleshire and many other residents in the Shady Hollow neighborhood are on a mission to oust their Precinct 3 Travis County Commis­sioner Karen Huber when she runs for re-election in 2012. The reason? Huber was part of the majority that voted 3-1 last year to remove SH 45 from the county's long-range list of transportation projects. County Judge Sam Biscoe, who cast the dissenting vote (with Margaret Gómez absent) ultimately won the argument when the governing board of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organ­iz­a­tion voted to keep the SH 45 southwest plan in the hopper. By then, the plan had already collected decades of dust, so what's a little more?

Not So Fast

The difference between the new road proposal and the original plan is that SH 45 would move from the purview of the Texas Department of Transportation and into Travis County's road portfolio. Of course, TxDOT would have to agree to the deal and transfer the right-of-way properties back to Travis and Hays counties. Travis voters in the late Nineties approved the county's acquisition of right-of-way for what was then proposed as a state highway.

Because Hays officials had asked Travis County to respond to their proposal by Dec. 1, Biscoe, a longtime proponent of SH 45 southwest, was prepared to rush forward with an agenda item for commissioners to consider before the end of November. But at a Monday meeting with TxDOT and CAMPO officials, regional planners placed a temporary speed bump in the proposal's path. According to Biscoe, transportation experts first want to do some traffic modeling to determine whether the revised SH 45 plan is indeed the answer to resolving congestion in the area. "They said it will be after the first of the year before they can get that done," Biscoe said. "The last one was done years and years ago, so they believe that we should have fresh numbers. If you've got transportation professionals saying that, it's kind of hard to push back."

Huber, for her part, remains opposed to the road going anywhere for now, regardless of the form it takes. She prefers making improvements to existing roads to provide alternate routes for Hays commuters and remains convinced that the road would only encourage more sprawl, and thus more traffic and more congestion. She points specifically to two parcels of land on either end of the proposed roadway that are already zoned for build-out – one for mixed use and the other for commercial development. "There are other obvious development interests," she said, noting "the much-talked-about growth in Hays County and the ultimate linkage to developments already being approved along I-35."

No matter how many times elected officials and voters have committed time and tax dollars to steer growth away from the aquifer, developments continue to sprout and multiply like an invasive species. In fact, these growth spots mysteriously appeared in the city's own comprehensive plan, even after members of a citizens' advisory task force asked city officials and consultants to remove them from the plan. An outline of SH 45 southwest, running from MoPac all the way to I-35, can be seen on the comp plan's Growth Concept Map online at www.imagineaustin.net/growth-concept-map. Com­plaints from discouraged task force members prompted Council Member Laura Mor­ri­son to introduce a resolution last month that would give the task force a stronger hand in the comp plan's development and implementation.

Not even Aleshire, easily the most vocal proponent of SH 45 southwest, supports linking I-35 to MoPac, noting that SH 130 was specifically built to serve as the I-35 bypass. Ironically, SH 130 currently serves as the road less traveled by north-south drivers, while traffic snarls on MoPac keep growing. (See www.keepmopaclocal.org for more on this pileup.)

Biscoe, meanwhile, would just like to see the SH 45 dilemma finally resolved, preferably in the form of asphalt running from FM 1626 to SH 45 and MoPac. He has consistently supported the project throughout his 22-year history on the commissioners court, first as Precinct 1 commissioner and now as county judge. "When I joined the court it was pretty much unanimously supported by Travis County, and over time the support has waned," he said. "That's what I get for being around so long, I guess." In retrospect though, he wishes the road proposal had never come up, but since it did, he believes it's in the county's interest to pursue it. "But if I were to put together a list of projects I wish I had never heard of," he says, "45 southwest would be on that list."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

transportation, highway planning, SH 45, State Highway 45, Karen Huber, Bill Aleshire, Sam Biscoe, Commissioners Court

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