By Bobbie Jean Sawyer
While the SH-45 Southwest project is not quite a done deal, the Travis County Commissioners Court has determined a funding strategy for the controversial proposed 3.6-mile roadway that would connect MoPac with FM 1626, thus clearing a significant hurdle to finally getting the road built.
At a March 18 Commissioners Court meeting, the court voted 4-1 to fund SH-45-SW through a partnership with Hays County and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority. Travis County will fund $15 million for the project, while Hays County will put forth $5 million. The Mobility Authority will borrow $48 million from the state infrastructure bank. The remaining money will come from a $32 million grant from TxDOT and the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO).
The future of SH-45-SW hangs in the state-conducted Environmental Impact Statement, which will evaluate potential environmental, cultural and social impacts of building the road. For SH-45-SW to be built, a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) of the build alternative must be recommended.
Over the project’s two-decade history, SH-45 supporters and environmentalists have sparred. Those in favor of building the road point to Austin’s ever-increasing traffic problem that has flowed over into neighborhoods, such as Shady Hollow, and reason that connecting MoPac to FM-1626 will help alleviate congestion. Environmentalists argue that SH-45-SW would put the sensitive Edwards Aquifer region at risk and would do little to help traffic congestion overall.
David Foster, state director for Clean Water Action, an organization devoted to protecting the environment and ensuring accessibility to clean, safe and affordable water, is among those opposed to SH-45-SW.
“I think that Austin has kind of gone highway and toll road crazy in general. I think these roads exacerbate sprawl and make everybody’s drive time longer,” Foster said. “We’ve put I don’t know how many billions of dollars into these highways and toll roads and congestion has gotten worse. So this will just continue us down that wrong-headed path.”
Foster said a project in the Barton Springs re-charge zone area deserves more consideration than the majority of commissioners have shown.
“I think SH-45 in particular has additional sort of special drawbacks because of the location. Building it over the aquifer, over the recharge zone, it puts Barton Springs at risk. It puts well water at risk,” Foster said. “I’m concerned too that the temporary majority on the commissioners court wants to rush this through without a federal environmental impact statement or study.”
Foster said the project also has economic drawbacks for Travis County voters.
“Travis County citizens will pay for most of this, but it’s actually Hays County commuters who will benefit. I think this is really being built to serve the interests of developments that really don’t exist yet but are planned for Hays County,” Foster said. “We’d be a lot better off, financially as well as environmentally if we just bought the land and preserved it.”
Foster said local and state leaders should focus on mass transportation, such as Lone Star Rail.
“If our political leaders had put the same effort into getting Lone Star Rail started as they did SH-130 or as some are now doing for SH-45 Southwest, we’d have had Lone Star Rail up and running.”
Foster said he hopes the January election will change the tides for SH-45-SW.
“It could be that once we have what I suspect will be a majority on the commissioners court against it come January, depending on how far this thing is moved forward, then we’ll still have time to reverse the recent decision,” Foster said. “So there are any number of ways—I would hope—that this thing could still be stopped, I just don’t know what the odds are.”
Travis County Precinct Three Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, a staunch supporter of SH-45-SW, said the environmental communities’ arguments against building the road are a red herring.
“This is not the only place where you have a sensitive piece of property that has a piece of infrastructure on it,” Daugherty said. “I honestly believe—and I think that most people in the industry understand—that you can build roads over sensitive pieces of property and that’s exactly what we’ll do.”
Daugherty said while the commissioners court vote is an encouraging sign for the project, the Environmental Impact Study must be completed before SH-45-SW is a sure bet.
Shady Hollow resident and former Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire spoke in favor of SH-45-SW at the March 18 meeting, saying a vote in support of SH-45 is a vote to protect neighborhoods.
“You can build and should build the SH-45 link between Mopac and FM 1626 and build it right with the most and best environmental protection as possible,” Aleshire said. “Doing this project right is where all our efforts should be coming together now.”
Aleshire said his neighborhood of Shady Hollow has been devastated by the overwhelming traffic on Brodie Lane and local leaders can no longer ignore the problem.
“The ostrich position will not work. It has not worked now and it will not work a year from now. I caution against another delay.”
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