Officials: SH 45 SW environmental study slated for early 2015 completion

After years of dormancy, the project to build a highway connecting southern Travis County to northern Hays County has seen a resurgence, and a Texas Department of Transportation study examining the road's environmental impacts is underway.

Launched in June, the environmental study will receive ongoing public input through its completion, slated for early 2015.

The latest meeting, an environmental listening workshop, was held in Buda on Nov. 14. Representatives from TxDOT, along with the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, were on hand to hear the public's concerns while also educating citizens about the scope of the project.

"It was really an opportunity for the project team to get what I like to call 'in the weeds' and really get into detail with the community," said Melissa Hurst, community outreach manager for the Mobility Authority. "It really is about us going out into the community and hearing what's important to you."

The proposed 3.6-mile, four-lane tollway would connect MoPac with FM 1626. It is expected to provide Hays County motorists a faster commute to Austin and relieve congestion on Brodie Lane.

"There are quite a few environmental considerations that [the project would bring] into effect, and that's why we are doing such an in-depth study to make sure we build the most responsible project we can," Hurst said.

In addition to its potential impact on the Edwards Aquifer and other sources of water, within the purview of the study are such considerations as flood plains, vegetation, wildlife, land use and threatened and endangered species.

Such concerns have been voiced since the first iteration of the proposal, which would have seen the road built as a segment of an outer loop encompassing Austin, said Bill Bunch, executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance.

"The environmental community has been opposing this road since it was first proposed in the mid-1980s," Bunch said. "It's a long history."

The S.O.S. Alliance's primary concern regards the potential for pollution of water resources, he said.

He said scientific analysis has shown that in three days or less, pollution from the road construction would flow into the Barton Springs without filtration.

The dangers of the project are threefold, he said. Pollution could occur during the construction phase or during the day-to-day operations of the toll road. Catastrophic spills, he added, are another threat posed with vehicles hauling materials across the recharge zone.

Bunch also argues the proposed roadway will unload more traffic onto a congested MoPac and do little to relieve congestion on Brodie Lane.

The character of MoPac as a local commuter highway ought to be maintained, he said.

The CAMPO 2035 Plan, as designed by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, calls for a possible connection from FM 1626 to I-35, which would undergo a separate environmental study if pursued.

Lucas Short, the SH 45 SW project manager for TxDOT, said studies are being conducted to determine the routes that commuters take from northern Hays County to southern Travis County.

"That will answer the question for us of how important it is," Short said. "There is a perception that commuters from Hays County are using Brodie Lane to get to downtown.

"In providing this alternate route, we would move them out of a neighborhood. From a community and economic standpoint, there is a benefit to the roadway."

Short also said people have pledged confidence that the agencies can use modern technology to build properly over the sensitive aquifer.

But alternatives exist to relieve congestion and facilitate commuting to and from Austin, Bunch said.

Improvements to Brodie Lane, Manchaca Road and FM 1626 as well as increasing the availability of public transit such as buses and Lone Star Rail are among the projects that can be undertaken to address the problem, he said.

TxDOT and the Mobility Authority will hold more open houses and workshops over the next year while the written environmental study is prepared. In late 2014, a public hearing is slated to be held on the project, and the findings of the environmental study will be released in 2015.

Short said engaging the community will involve balancing the environmental concerns with the need to lessen traffic congestion and connect the two communities.

"Really the goal of this project is how can we get congestion relief in this area and also mitigate everybody's concerns," he said.