Nearly a year and a half after breaking ground on the SH 45 SW tollway, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, the region’s mobility and toll authority, is reporting construction is about 60 percent complete.
The 3.6-mile toll road will connect MoPac to FM 1626 in Hays County, which Mobility Authority officials say will help relieve congestion off neighborhood corridors such as Brodie Lane, Slaughter Lane and Manchaca Road.
At completion the project will include two toll lanes in each direction along with a shared-use pedestrian path along that will connect to the Violet Crown Trail.
Despite opposition from environmental groups and some residents, the Mobility Authority broke ground on the estimated $109 million project in November 2016 following decades of planning.
“As Hays County and [areas] down south continue to grow, that pressure of traffic in the morning and evening is going to continue to increase,” said Steve Pustelnyk Mobility Authority director of community relations. “[The project] is essentially providing an alternative route to the neighborhood streets in the area.”
The road to construction
In 1997 Travis County voters approved a $3.5 million bond for land acquisition that would serve as the home of the SH 45 SW tollway, Pustelnyk said. In 1998 both Travis and Hays counties passed resolutions of support for the project, giving transportation planning authorities the green light to move forward, according to county documents.
After planning and studies were underway, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, the region’s transportation planning agency, conducted a public hearing where residents testified against the construction of the roadway due to potential negative environmental and traffic impacts. As a result, Travis County withdrew its support for the tollway in 2010. CAMPO agreed to keep the project in its plans.
Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, whose district represents a portion of Southwest Austin and the area in which the highway is being constructed, said the highway was the primary reason he first ran for office in 2002 and that he worked for years to get the project back on track.
After a series of public hearings, the county reinstated its support for the project in October 2013. That led to the county allocating $15 million toward the construction of the project, with Hays County contributing $5 million, according to county documents.
“It’s taken me 14 years to get it done,” Daugherty said. “The reason [the toll road] is so important is that it connects northern Hays County to Travis County, because there are so many people who live in Hays County because they can’t afford to live in Austin or Travis County.”
He added that since people prefer to use MoPac rather than I-35, the project is necessary in connecting Hays County residents to Central Austin.
“Right now, [commuters] take FM 1626 to Brodie Lane to Slaughter Lane to MoPac South, so this will be a direct connection between FM 1626 and MoPac,” Daugherty said.
Opposition remains strong
Residents and environmental activists are still expressing concerns with the project and its effects on the
The Save Our Springs Alliance and other environmental groups feel the roadway is imposing on wildlife habitats and damaging water quality because the roadway is being developed over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone and in areas that are considered to be conservation easements, SOS Alliance officials said.
“We just feel like these resources are much better spent expanding roads that serve development in areas where we would prefer to have our growth go rather than in these incredibly vulnerable watersheds,” SOS Alliance Executive Director Bill Bunch said.
Pustelnyk said the Mobility Authority is taking extensive measures during and after construction of the roadway to ensure the project impact on the surrounding environment is minimized, especially when it comes to protecting water quality.
He said the project includes a special type of pavement that both provides safety benefits for drivers but also helps trap contaminants so they do not run off the highway. All the water will go into water-quality ponds, which helps filter contaminants before the water is released, he said.
The alliance also leads a local coalition, known as Keep MoPac Local, that opposes the toll road, Bunch said.
The group believes with the construction of the SH 45 SW toll road project, which they believe could possibly connect to I-35 someday, and the MoPac intersection improvements at La Crosse Avenue and Slaughter Lane, the Mobility Authority is essentially building a loop around Austin without telling people and properly studying what that means for the community, he said. Keep MoPac Local believes MoPac should be primarily a local commuter highway and not an alternative interstate.
The main purpose of the SH 45 SW tollway is not as an access point to I-35; and current traffic models do not show that there will be significant traffic coming from I-35, Pustelnyk said. He said the projected traffic is coming from Hays County using FM 1626.
Some residents living in the Circle C neighborhood also feel the new toll road will have negative implications on MoPac right at the neighborhood entrance.
“The residents are more worried about the increased traffic that the SH 45 extension will shoot straight through the neighborhood,” Circle C HOA manager Karen Hibpsham said. “MoPac divides one section of the neighborhood from the main section, and there is some concern over that and how the increased traffic is going to make it difficult to make it in and out of the community.”
Pustelnyk said most of the cars that will use the new tollway already use MoPac, but access it further north.
Another project the Texas Department of Transportation is currently working on along MoPac is the under passes being installed at La Crosse Avenue and Slaughter Lane, which is expected to relieve congestion at those cross roads. Hibpsham said residents in Circle C have expressed frustration with the congestion from that project.
“While it would have been nice to have the two projects done at the same time it is not always possible, so when we first open [the toll road] there will be a period of time where there will be some congestion in that area due to construction on that project,” Pustelnyk said.
Construction on the MoPac intersection project began in January and is expected to be complete by 2021, TxDOT officials said.
Brodie residents need relief
Despite opposition from some neighboring communities, those neighborhoods situated along Brodie are waiting in anticipation for the relief the tollway project could bring, local residents said.
Shady Hollow HOA President Michael Cain said Brodie Lane has grown to serve as a major thoroughfare for both commuters and area residents. Those living in the area have grown frustrated with the congestion and are often caught in bumper-to-bumper traffic during rush hour, he said.
“This community was very active in supporting the development of SH 45 SW from the beginning,” Cain said. “This community, and for the right reasons, believes that SH 45 SW will take some traffic off of Brodie Lane.”
However, Cain said, residents are concerned with what a reduction in traffic on Brodie will mean for the road in the future.
“The residents in this neighborhood would prefer Brodie Lane stay as it is, but the city may come along and put roundabouts at certain points along the road,” Cain said.
The city of Austin is currently developing a preliminary engineering report for Brodie from FM 1626 to Slaughter intended to enhance mobility, connectivity, and safety for residents. Recommendations include adding turn lanes, bike lanes, and a shared-use path, said Mandy McClendon, public information officer for the corridor mobility program.
McClendon said the plan will be ready for City Council review by the end of 2018.
The city of Austin is also working on other corridor mobility improvement projects in the area along Manchaca, Slaughter and William Cannon Drive. McClendon said the mobility corridor program staff will take its recommendations for shared-use paths, turn lanes and intersection improvements on each of the roadways to City Council in March.
“Our hope is SH 45 SW does have a positive impact on these corridors and diverts traffic off the roads,” McClendon said. “The recommended improvements, however, will hopefully also help reduce congestion and crashes and improve connectivity. We’ve had really great feedback from the community on this, and we are working to get these done.”
Pustelnyk said the SH 45 SW project is on track to be completed by summer 2019. Over the last year, the Mobility Authority has worked to complete the project by building the project out in phases.
Pustelnyk said crews are now starting to build the tie-in at FM 1626, which will result in a lane reduction. The FM 1626 closure will allow crews to widen the road to add turn lanes onto the new road and traffic signals. A lot of pavement along the tollway has already been laid down as well, he said.
Pustelnyk added that the focus right now is at Bliss Spillar Road, where crews are working on realigning the road for the new interchange and starting to build the bridge that will stretch across the roadway.
The other major structure on the project is a long bridge over Bear Creek, he said. The deck has been poured, and the railing and traffic barriers along the shoulders are being finalized. Work on the flyover ramps at MoPac and SH 45 is also underway.
“We’ve now got to the point where the whole project is under construction because we’ve got some sections of it pretty much done,” Pustelnyk said. “By end of  you should start to see the project look complete in a lot of these places.”
State Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin, whose district covers a portion of Southwest Austin, said he and Daugherty will continue to monitor the project to ensure it is completed on time.
“One of the things I do as a state representative is meet pretty regularly with TxDOT and CTRMA,” Workman told Community Impact Newspaper. “We will continue to meet with them on a regular basis and make sure the project is going as planned. I’ve been out to the job, and we will continue to watch it so that it finishes up when it is supposed to and open it as soon as possible so people can start to benefit from it.”