Officials: Delayed project needs environmental study, design, funding

SH 45 SW, the proposed 3.6-mile roadway between MoPac and FM 1626, has long been a topic of discussion and controversy in southern Travis County.

In recent months, former Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty made building SH 45 SW a campaign issue in his successful race to unseat Commissioner Karen Huber to represent Precinct 3.

Right now, SH 45 SW remains in the 2035 Regional Transportation Plan of CAMPO, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, a governing body that coordinates regional transportation planning for Bastrop, Caldwell, Hays, Travis and Williamson counties.

SH 45 SW is included in the 2035 plan's short-term Transportation Improvement Plan. Federal funding is available for environmental and engineering work. CAMPO is working on traffic modeling.

Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, an independent government agency designed to improve local transportation systems, may help fund the road.

"What continues to keep SH 45 SW from moving forward aggressively is the continued discussion among the community about whether the road should be built, is it needed and what form it should take," said mobility authority spokesman Steve Pustelnyk.

Supporters point to a 1997 election in which voters approved buying road rights of way to build SH 45 SW. They claim Huber does not support the road.

Huber is skeptical about whether the road will improve traffic on Brodie Lane and noted that two schools are on the road.

"My best guess is that if the [environmental] study is done fairly and accurately that it will be very difficult to justify the cost/benefits of building the road," she said.

Some claim that Travis County would foot most of the bill for a road that mainly benefits Hays County.

"The first step is to identify what we want," said Will Conley, CAMPO chairman and Hays County commissioner. "Do we want a two-lane road? A four-lane road? Four lanes divided?"

There are two paths to build the road—a state path with funding likely coordinated through CTRMA, or a locally funded path arranged between Travis and Hays counties. Either way, the road will need an environmental study, design work and funding.

Daugherty said that if he is appointed to the CAMPO Transportation Policy Board after taking office, he will work to secure support among CAMPO's board members so that "we don't have to worry month to month about the project being taken out of the CAMPO plan."

After that, he said he planned to meet with the Texas Department of Transportation.

"I would like to see it taken on by both Travis County and Hays County," he said. "I obviously can't authorize that unilaterally, but the area's representative does have an awful lot of influence."

The state path

Even with proposed streamlining legislation, the environmental study may take two to seven years, Conley said.

Those studying the project will need to figure out how to build the road through the environmentally sensitive Barton Springs recharge zone, as well as through an area of the Balcones Canyonland Preserve that includes Flintridge Cave.

"This cave must be mitigated to U.S. Fish and Wildlife's satisfaction, or the city/county 10A [federal Endangered Species Act] permit could be in jeopardy," Huber wrote in an email to Community Impact Newspaper. "At any rate, many believe the cost to mitigate it would be astronomical."

When the environmental study is done, the conversation shifts to design and funding, Conley said.

Because of the area's environmental sensitivity, SH 45 SW would need green features, said Sarah Eckhardt, Travis County commissioner and CAMPO vice-chairwoman.

In 2011, CTRMA and TxDOT held an engineering contest to create green features that would be considered in the final road design.

Officials would need to find funding for road construction, which is estimated to cost $20 million to $100 million.

"The state does not have the funds to build the road, period," Eckhardt said.

Pustelnyk said the prevailing assumption is that CTRMA would coordinate financing, most likely through issuing bonds paid back through toll revenue.

Daugherty and Huber both noted that the SH 45 SW was not considered as a toll road during the 1997 vote.

A public-private partnership could also fund the road.

"A private company might have the right to operate the road for a period of time and collect a share of tolls as a way of repaying their investment and making a profit on the project," Pustelnyk said. The state government would still own the road, he said.

The Texas Legislature would need to authorize a public-private partnership for SH 45 SW.

The county path

An alternate path to build SH 45 SW would be to remove the road from the state highway system.

In September 2011, Hays County Commissioners Court authorized County Judge Bert Cobb to negotiate with Travis County to build a smaller SH 45 SW locally.

At the time, Carlos Lopez, then TxDOT Austin district engineer, said that in order for the Hays plan to move forward:

The two counties would need to reach an agreement and send a formal request to TxDOT;

The TxDOT Transportation Commission agrees to remove the road from the state system and transfer rights of way to the counties;

and the CAMPO policy board agrees to amend its regional transportation plan.

Hays County Commissioners Court pledged up to $5 million toward the project. Travis County would pay the remaining cost, which may exceed $20 million.