New SH 45 SW was a joint effort

by Jim Camp, former BSEACD president

Thank local citizens for “preserving the environment we all share” for new SH 45 SW.

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA), an agency that funds and builds roads in central Texas, has been advertising the building of SH 45SW Toll Road and their role in “preserving the environment we all share,” as part of the project. CTRMA should give most of the credit for the focus on environmental stewardship to local citizens and groups like Save Barton Creek Association, Sierra Club and Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District (BSEACD).

Originally, state transportation officials with the Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT) planned a 3.7-mile freeway as part of an “outer loop.” It included frontage roads with multiple access points over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone with little strategy to remove and monitor roadway pollution. These plans had MOPAC going south across pristine Hill Country land in Hays County. Segment 3 of the “outer loop” was planned to connect ¼ mile short of IH-35 South. Why would it do that?

The obvious reason was that the state didn’t want it to be a designated federal project that would require a stricter Federal Environmental Impact Study (FES). TXDOT wanted to control the outcome of the study and did its own inadequate environmental review.

After citizen and public interest backlash, BSEACD and TXDOT reached an agreement in U.S. federal court for a parkway design with no frontage roads, limited access, best roadway construction standards, protection of creeks and caves, and higher standards for water pollution removal. Best Management Practices for water quality ponds and hazard material traps were seen as a good start.

The Consent Decree agreement stipulated that if TXDOT sought federal funding on the outer loop Segment 3 over the aquifer, then it must do a FES. The project languished over the years not only from public opposition, but mostly because a lack of funding. When toll roads gained some state-wide support, CTRMA was created.

Initially there was no guarantee that CTRMA would honor the consent decree. Many people in the Austin area spoke against this project as planned.

Years had passed and we had better geoscience knowledge of the Edwars Aquifer and Barton Springs. For example, top agency and university geoscientist using dye-tracing technology, could now tell us that a hydrocarbon spill on SH 45 SW near Bear Creek could pollute local groundwater wells immediately and that contamination could reach Barton Springs in days.

We now understood how, when and where the recharged water travels in the aquifer. In addition, more geological assessment identified dozens of recharge features like Flintridge Cave.

CTRMA did the politically expedient thing to get 45SW Toll Road built. But it was the “locals” who worked tirelessly for years to get officials to do the right thing. The source for our drinking water and that of Barton Springs deserved nothing less. When you drive on this new segment of SH45 SW, admire a part of the sensitive, scenic Texas Hill Country and remember that even local citizens can make a big, positive impact. Even if it takes years to do so.

Jim Camp is a former board member and president of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District.

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