Could study hold up SH45 again? TxDOT defends report science, wants to move forward with toll road

By Kim Hilsenbeck

After more than 20 years of delays, the SH45 SW toll road project might take a step, a little one, toward constructions.

Maybe. 

A new snag almost threatened to postpone the project, which had been a battling ground for environmentalists, planners, Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and anyone trying commute into Austin from Hays County.

But now, as both Travis and Hays counties have designated funds toward the construction of the road, a new letter from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a responding letter from TxDOT may answer some of the environmental questions.

An April 15 letter by the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, sent to Austin Mayor Steve Adler, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and other stakeholders, highlighted concerns about the environmental impact that SH45 SW may have on Austin and Travis County’s Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan (BCCP).

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), the agency that contracted the impact study, responded to the concerns with its own letter, which was first obtained by the Austin Monitor.

TxDOT Director of Environmental Affairs Carlos Swonke wrote, “As a responsible steward of the environment, TxDOT conducted extensive environmental and technical studies in preparing the impact statement for the project. TxDOT also coordinated extensively with Travis County, specific to the [BCCP].

He continued, “Based on the technical studies discussed in the Final Environmental Impact Statement, we expect the project to have a positive impact on water quality in the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer. It will move traffic off local streets that have little or no stormwater controls, to a new road with state-of-the-art stormwater controls. Based on the technical studies discussed in the Final Environmental Impact Statement, we do not anticipate any negative impacts to the resources described in the letter.”

In March TxDOT cleared the proposed 3.6-mile, four-lane tolled highway project for construction following its approval of the Final Environmental Impact Statement in January.

The City of Austin has been a longtime opponent of the project. Chuck Lesniak, the city’s Watershed Protection Department environmental officer, recently called the TxDOT environmental study “unsound”.

After receiving the fish and wildlife letter, Eckhardt asked Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA) Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein, a partner with TxDOT on the project, to postpone further design plans until environmental concerns are resolved.

At the April 21 Travis County Commissioners Court meeting, Swonke told the court that top scientists were involved in the environmental report. In public testimony, he presented a three-pronged argument saying the city and Travis County enacted the BCCP with the expectation that SH45 SW would eventually cut through the land. Travis County approved the BCCP in 1996, but the SH45 SW project was approved in 1989.

Swonke also argued that the use of modern environmental road improvements on SH45 SW would have less of an effect on the Edwards Aquifer than if it funneled traffic through older roadways.

Citing past city of Austin projects involving BCCP caves, Swonke said, “No one has shown us any evidence that anything bad happens to a cave when you build a road 350 feet away from it,” referring to the distance SH45 SW would be away from the federally protected Flint Ridge Cave.

Pct. 2 Commissioner Brigid Shea asked Swonke if the environmental impact study took the proposed connection to I-35 into account, or the recent addition of four toll lanes in the MoPac South project. Swonke said the I-35 connection has not been formally approved and therefore was not mentioned in the study.

Pct. 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, a long-time advocate of the road project, and a commissioner who campaigned on getting the road built, said the issues now are really about “just not building this road.”

Hays County Commissioner Pct. 2 Mark Jones said in a phone interview Friday that he is confident TxDOT will begin construction by the end of this year or the beginning of 2016.

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