As the start of scheduled construction of SH 45 SW nears this summer, a group made up of citizen and conservation groups, including Save Our Springs Alliance and Friends of the Wildflower Center, filed a lawsuit Feb. 25 to halt the project and two others.

The lawsuit claims that the Texas Department of Transportation and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority violated federal law by splitting an overall South MoPac project into three separate ones: SH 45 SW, MoPac Intersections and the MoPac South toll lanes. The SH 45 SW project connects the southern end of MoPac to FM 1626; the MoPac Intersections project aims to improve the MoPac/Slaughter Lane and MoPac/La Crosse Avenue overpasses; and the MoPac South toll lanes are slated to be placed from Lady Bird Lake to Slaughter.

According to the lawsuit, TxDOT and the Mobility Authority have avoided taking a “hard look” at the cumulative environmental effects of the three projects as an entirety. The plaintiffs stated all three sections cross the Edwards Aquifer.

A coalition is claiming in court that the environmental effects of three proposed road projects over the Edwards Aquifer in Southwest Austin are not being examined. A coalition is claiming in court that the environmental effects of three proposed road projects over the Edwards Aquifer in Southwest Austin are not being examined.[/caption]

“We have strong suspicions that there are going to be fairly significant environmental degradation of the Edwards Aquifer, which would ultimately affect Barton Springs,” the plaintiffs’ attorney, Renea Hicks, said. “There would be adverse effects at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, and it would destroy significant habitat for endangered species like the golden-cheeked warbler.”

Hicks added that TxDOT and the Mobility Authority should have completed a cumulative environmental impact study before doing anything definitive related to the projects.

The coalition is asking the court to prevent any construction for the three projects and declare the two agencies are violating the National Environmental Policy Act, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit was filed 10 days before the Mobility Authority began final design for the SH 45 SW project March 5 and more than a year after an environmental impact statement was completed for the project in January 2015. Contractor bidding and construction for SH 45 SW is scheduled for later this year.

Responding to the lawsuit

The Mobility Authority said in a statement that a lawsuit was filed against TxDOT and itself to stop the MoPac South, SH 45 SW and MoPac Intersections projects.

“Over the last decade, lawsuits have been filed against projects in Central Texas, but they have not produced any measurable impacts, given that we have proceeded in adherence to all requirements set forth by state and federal laws,” Mobility Authority spokesperson Dee Anne Heath said via email.

Bob Kaufman, TxDOT chief communications and marketing officer, said via email that TxDOT has followed all state and federal laws.

“The complaint raises again the questions decided by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1992, which sided with TxDOT,” Kaufman said.

Both agencies declined to make further comments about the litigation.

Commenting on the lawsuit, SH 45 SW supporter Kevin Tomasek, a resident since 1982, said it makes sense, but the plaintiffs are just finding a new way to delay the project once again.

“[The plaintiffs] have never provided any alternative that is a worthy alternative,” Tomasek said. “All we can do is try to get SH 45 SW ... to go through.”

Tomasek said he voted for the SH 45 SW project when it was on a ballot in 1985. He believes the project was a requirement 30 years ago, and it has been scheduled for completion several times throughout the years. 

“The fact remains that South Austin needs this connection,” Tomasek said. “All the people who live in Hays County who come to Austin come through Brodie Lane, a residential area. All those thousands of cars sit at the Brodie and Slaughter intersection for 10-15 minutes each way.”