Then There's This: Extreme Sprawl

SH 45 toll road hawks back in the driver's seat

Well, at least no one can accuse Gerald Daugherty of backpedaling on a campaign pledge. The Precinct 3 Travis County com­missioner convinced Southwest Austin voters in 2012 that he would get a Southwest Austin toll road built come hell or highly environmentally sensitive drinking water.

So far, he's doing a masterful job of following through on his promise to lead the charge on building State Highway 45 South­west. On Mon­day, he delivered a big chunk of that pledge by shepherding a vote by the Capital Area Met­ro­pol­itan Planning Organ­ization board to fast-track construction of the four-lane toll road across the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aqui­fer. The road plan has been on and off the front burner for more than 20 years, but Daugherty and other "build-it" strategists figured out how to speed up the process by removing federal dollars – and prying federal eyes – from the project. Instead, the regional toll road authority will shift $8.6 million in state dollars from the proposed US 183 South toll project to help finance SH 45. And federal dollars originally designated for SH 45 will be shifted over to the 183 project. The money swap will allow road officials to bypass those annoying and time-consuming federal environmental requirements, and instead follow the state's more relaxed environmental regs.

Blades of Grass

As Daugherty told the Statesman's Ben Wear, "You don't want the [federal] environmental process because of the lengthy time frame it takes to comply with all of that. You can do it with the state process and have it be just as good a project." (Uh huh. We've heard the "just-as-good" argument before.) "While I'm still in office," Daugherty told Wear, "I want to see the first blade of grass moved."

The 3.6-mile stretch of proposed asphalt would link the south end of MoPac to FM 1626 and would largely benefit Hays County commuters. To that end, Hays County Commissioner and CAMPO Board Chair Will Conley served as Daugherty's co-pilot in crafting the funding switch. The road project would also siphon about $15 million from Travis County taxpayers and some $5 million from Hays County.

A number of developers are also pinning their hopes on the road deal, as are residents of the Shady Hollow neighborhood in Southwest Austin, who are hoping the toll road would relieve congestion on Brodie Lane. On the other hand, the Austin City Council has symbolically given the road a thumbs down by removing SH 45 from the Imagine Austin comprehensive plan.

The CAMPO vote was 16-2, with City Council Members Chris Riley and Bill Spel­man casting the only dissenting votes. Save Our Springs Alliance Director Bill Bunch spoke in opposition to the road that SOS and other environmental groups, not to mention any number of elected officials, have opposed since the Eighties. Riley said Wednesday that it looked as though CAMPO board members (most of whom hail from fast-growing, suburban counties) were ready to pass the item with no discussion. That's when he weighed in to ask about the environmental study. "They said the state study would be just as robust as the federal study," Riley said. "But I don't know if that's the case. I think for those of us who are concerned about this area, it's up to all of us to keep a very close eye on the environmental process as it unfolds and make sure that it is as rigorous as it should be."

In a Feb. 10 memo to Council prior to the CAMPO meeting that night, city Trans­portation Director Robert Spillar noted staff's disagreement with CAMPO's proposed transfer of federal funds. "This request, if approved, would essentially 'defederalize' the SH 45(SW) project, and in doing so, a full federal environmental process would not necessarily be conducted. It is laudable that TxDOT has continued to commit to perform a federally compliant environmental process but should funds run short, or circumstances change, it may not be entirely possible." A study conducted by the state, Spillar warned, "may not be as rigorous or robust as the requirements of the federal National Environmental Policy Act procedures, and the City has a policy to support a comprehensive review and careful consideration of infrastructure improvements in this environmentally sensitive area."

Time's A Wastin'

According to SOS Alliance's account of the meeting, Riley's questioning elicited responses from Daugherty and outgoing Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe that suggested the vote to shift funds was necessary before the March 4 primary, which will more clearly determine the political direction of the Com­mis­sioners Court in 2014, when two new members – a county judge and a Precinct 2 commissioner – will join the court. The two Demo­cratic county judge candidates, Andy Brown and Sarah Eckhardt, both oppose construction of SH 45, as do two of the three Pct. 2 hopefuls, Brigid Shea and Garry Brown. Richard Jung has not taken a position on the road.

Former County Judge Bill Aleshire, who lives in Shady Hollow and who has been lobbying for years to get SH 45 built, also happens to support two of the candidates opposed to the toll road – Shea, a longtime environmental activist, and Andy Brown, whom he said he supported before Eck­hardt announced her candidacy. He said, "I am aware of Brigid and Andy's shorthand positions on SH 45, and obviously I disagree with them. But I do not believe any candidate who gets elected can just ignore the catastrophic traffic impact the lack of the SH 45 link has caused to my Shady Hollow neighborhood. Ostrich position ain't gonna work."

Of course, when it comes to traffic, there's no guarantee that SH 45 is gonna work either.

"Point Austin" returns next week.

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New, Travis County Commissioners Court, Stae highway 45, Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, CAMPO, Barton Springs, Edwards Aquifer, Austin City Council, Bill Spellman, Chris Riley, Bill Bunch, Save Our Springs Alliance, Sam Biscoe, Andy Brown, Sarah Eckhardt, Brigid Shea, Garry Brown, Richard Jung

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