by Ann Fowler
Residents along Brodie Lane may finally find traffic relief as the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) announced it is moving forward with construction of State Highway 45 Southwest (SH45 SW) now that an Environmental Impact Study (EIS) has been completed. Access to the new road will be limited to FM 1626, Bliss Spillar Road, Mopac or SH45 west of Mopac.
The four-mile, four-lane toll road from Mopac to FM 1626 has long been touted as a way to channel commuter traffic from Hays County to downtown Austin, which currently takes Brodie Lane or Manchaca to Slaughter Lane to Mopac.
Shady Hollow resident Vikki Goodwin told the Gazette, “I am glad to know the environmental study for SH45 SW has been completed, and TxDOT has determined it will not adversely affect the environment. I am certain this connection to Mopac will help minimize thru traffic on Brodie Lane. More homes are being built off 1626, adding to the number of cars needing to take Brodie Lane to get to Mopac heading north into Austin. SH45 SW will provide an alternate route for many drivers.”
The story of SH45 SW is one of broken promises, conflicting traffic counts, differing priorities and contradictory environmental concerns. The roadway has been in the planning stages for nearly three decades. Shady Hollow resident Bill Aleshire called SH45 SW a “critical piece of the regional mobility plan,” and added, “Travis voters overwhelmingly approved this project in a 1997 bond election, and the only reason it has not been completed is purely political dogma.”
In 2006, when traffic from Hays County had grown to the point that residents along Brodie Lane wanted the street closed at FM 1626, Travis County Commissioners rejected that idea, but promised SH45 SW would be built soon to relieve area traffic. At that meeting, Precinct 2 Commissioner Karen Sonleitner said, “If you have to ask me today, July 25th, 2006, whether it’s appropriate to close it, I have to say ‘no.’ Now, I will not be here in 2009, but if you were to ask me that question in 2009, and I remember this court, and SH45 still had not been started, I would vote to close that road.”
Of course Brodie was never closed, and residents have suffered as traffic from Hays County commuters has increased.
Environmental concerns have been raised many times. Nearly 25 years ago, the U.S. District Court for the Western District issued a Consent Decree in answer to a lawsuit filed by Save Barton Creek Association and others, resulting in the compromise settlement between TxDOT and the environmental groups.
In 2008, when TxDOT’s plan for a combination of tolled and free lanes substantially enlarged the roadway, environmentalists again became concerned that the project would damage sensitive environmental features in the area. An environmental study began in June 2013; it was completed March 4th of this year, and the project was declared ready to move forward.
Carlos Swonke, TxDOT’s Environmental Affairs Division Director, said, “Our challenge in the environmental review process was to develop a project that addresses the transportation need while still being sensitive to the environmental issues. We have accomplished that. Our team of engineers and scientists has done a great job of studying the issues and finding ways to reduce impacts to the environment. We’re committed to a wide range of water quality protection measures and now, we can move this project one step closer to construction.”
In 2011, SH45 SW and the ‘Y’ were the focus of a design challenge seeking innovative ways to build and maintain them. Highway engineers, planners and landscape architects were asked by TxDOT and The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA) to provide a “green” facelift for the roadways.
Officials said several Green Mobility Challenge features would be incorporated in SH45 SW. Those include avoiding impacts to recharge features, minimizing impervious cover, and construction of a wide bridge over Bear Creek. Bicycle and pedestrian accommodations will be included.
Project officials said water quality protection measures would exceed Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) rules using Permeable Friction Course (PFC), Vegetative Filter Strips and Water Quality Ponds.
Brodie Lane resident Goodwin said, “Not only will the new road not harm the environment, but the environment will be better off around SH45 SW than it is around Brodie Lane. The filters designed for the SH45 SW area will keep water flowing into the aquifer cleaner than run off in other areas of the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone.”
Oak Hill resident and OHAN board member Rick Perkins told the Gazette, “The capture of particulates and dissolved solids by a variety of methods along the SH45 SW corridor will make it one of the most environmentally sound in the State of Texas. By not building these new state of the art roads, we continue to use old ones, such as Highway 290 West through Oak Hill, which drops more oil and grease into Williamson Creek and the aquifer than any other roadway in Central Texas. We need better roadways with better runoff capture devices.”
Additional environmental protections against runoff pollutants include:
• No herbicide use within the right-of-way
• Vacuum truck utilization
• Periodic inspections of hazardous materials traps and other permanent best management practices
• Equipment fuel or hazardous material storage will be performed within a containment area to prevent the possibility of accidental discharge to groundwater
• Equipment fueling will be performed a minimum of 200 feet from the nearest sensitive karst feature and water crossing
• Phased construction practices, where feasible, will limit the area and duration of construction disturbance.
Perkins pointed out that less traffic gridlock is also good for the environment. He said, “The lack of proper roadways has caused our air quality and water quality to suffer. With new and improved roadways, such as SH45 SW, traffic will be able to flow at the optimal design speeds, reduce air emissions and reduce air pollution. Wherever we can stop gridlock, we should do it, because idling vehicles hurt the environment.”
The project will be designed with two lanes in each direction, but Perkins would like to see an added lane in each direction. He said, “We need more roadways and transportation corridors as the current ones are not satisfying our needs.”
Rick L’Amie, manager of communications for the CTRMA, acknowledged that Hays and Travis counties contributed $20 million for design and construction of SH45 SW in 2014. He said, “The remaining construction costs will be funded by TxDOT and the Mobility Authority through toll revenue. The SH45 SW project is expected to cost approximately $100 million. The project will not utilize any federal funding. A more detailed funding plan will be established during the next several phases of project development.”
Initial estimates show toll cost per mile at 33 cents for passenger cars and $1.14 for trucks.
While some Circle C residents oppose the road because they believe it will bring added traffic to Mopac, others point out that it will just provide a safer, more direct route for those who currently use Brodie and Manchaca. Aleshire said, “This project will not increase traffic on Mopac unless it is extended to connect to I-35, which it should not be.” He added, “SH 130, not Mopac, should be a ‘freeway’ for traffic to get around Austin and avoid I-35 downtown.” A potential connection between FM 1626 and I-35 is included for study in the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s 2035 Plan.
Officials believe Brodie Lane residents will see significant traffic relief once the roadway is completed. Traffic estimates for 2015 show 23,000 trips a day. With SH45 SW completed, traffic estimates for Brodie Lane in 2035 are 22,379; without the new roadway, those estimates rise to 42,231.
Officials estimate time savings for commuters:
• FM 1626 to Brodie Lane to Slaughter Lane to Mopac: 12 minutes
• FM 1626 to Manchaca Road to Slaughter Lane to Mopac: 17 minutes
• FM 1626 to Manchaca Road to Lamar Boulevard: 9 minutes
• FM 1626 to Manchaca Road to William Cannon to Mopac: 9 minutes
Even those electing to stay on local roads should save about six minutes in their commute.
Goodwin points out that TxDOT is considering improvements to Mopac south of the river to help with increasing traffic—a toll lane in each direction from Slaughter Lane to Cesar Chavez Street. The CTRMA has taken public input to consider the project.
In addition, traffic officials are proposing underpasses for Slaughter Lane and La Crosse Avenue at Mopac to improve mobility and safety.
The CTRMA has tasked the Rodriguez Transportation Group (RTG) with developing design and construction plans, a process that will take several months. Once these plans are finalized, officials will request bids for construction. Once a contractor is chosen, construction can begin.
For further information, see http://www.sh45sw.com.