For years the debate about SH 45 SW has centered around two big questions—how would the controversial roadway affect the environment, and how will it be funded?
The Texas Department of Transportation is researching the first question, and it will finish a new environmental study on the project in early 2015.
If the study supports building the roadway, Travis County leaders have an answer for the second question.
On March 18, Travis County Commissioners Court voted 4–1 to partner with Hays County and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority to fund SH 45 SW. Commissioner Ron Davis opposed.
Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who ran his 2012 campaign on building SH 45 SW, said construction would cost between $70 million–$100 million to make the road as environmentally friendly as possible.
SH 45 SW is a proposed four-lane, 3.6-mile tollway connecting MoPac to FM 1626 in Hays County. It was first discussed in the 1980s as part of a loop concept circling Austin.
In 1997, Travis County voters approved funds to buy rights of way with the expectation that the road would be built.
The project stalled for years for environmental, monetary and political reasons.
Supporters emphasize the 1997 vote and say SH 45 SW would reduce congestion on Brodie Lane. They cite the Mobility Authority's 2011 Green Mobility Challenge as proof that the road could be built with green features.
Environmentalists claim SH 45 SW would damage the Edwards Aquifer, Barton Springs and Balcones Canyonland Preserve. They also say voters did not vote for a tollway in 1997 and that funding for the road would be better spent elsewhere.
David Foster, state director of Clean Water Action, urged the court on March 18 not to approve an interlocal agreement before the environmental study was completed.
"It seems like we are playing dice with the Edwards Aquifer; we are playing dice with Barton Springs," he said. "We are not going to make a new aquifer. If we lose Barton Springs, it's gone forever."
Roy Waley, vice chairman of the Lone Star Chapter of Sierra Club, said the county's $15 million would be a substantial contribution if applied to the Lone Star Rail District's project that would build passenger rail from San Antonio to Georgetown.
Bill Bunch, executive director of Save Our Springs Alliance, questioned whether the deal violated the county's debt policy.
"Voters 17 years ago approved $3 million [for rights of way]. They did not approve $18 million [for construction]. There is no voter approval here," he said. "They certainly never approved $18 million of taxpayer funds to bankroll a toll road."
County Budget Director Jessica Rio said the policy is more of a guideline and that it addresses long-term debt.
Beth Ann Ray, the vice president of regional infrastructure at the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber supports SH 45 SW because it is "a tool in the toolbox we need" to support a regional economy and workforce.
Former Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire said his neighborhood of Shady Hollow has been "devastated" by the failure to build SH 45 SW.
"No matter who sits on this court in the future, the issue of ... just the existing traffic making its way to and from Hays County from FM 1626 to MoPac will still have to be dealt with," he said. "The ostrich position has not worked. It will not work now and will not work a year from now. I caution against another delay."
$15 million from Travis County (paid by issuing bonds)
$5 million from Hays County
$32 million grant from Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization
$48 million that the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority would borrow from the State Infrastructure Bank
Estimated cost of building SH 45 SW: $70 million–$100 million
Source: Travis County