Highway on the Aquifer (SH 45 SW)

Austin American-Statesman

May 27, 2017

OTHERS SAY CLARK HANCOCK AND STEPHEN BEERS Special Contributors

TxDOT continues to take wrong approach on Texas 45 Southwest

For over 35 years, Save Barton Creek Association has worked to protect Barton Creek and Austin’s crown jewel, Barton Springs. One of the gravest threats we see to this iconic natural resource is the construction of Texas 45 Southwest. Part of Texas 45 SW is to be built through land critical to the springs’ flow.

 

Over the years, the Texas Department of Transportation has attempted to avoid federal regulations concerning this project.

 

In the 1980s, our association was embroiled in a lawsuit over a proposed “Outer Loop” — now Texas 45 SW — planned to encircle Austin. The part of the Loop project over the Barton Springs aquifer was to be built with “state funds only” to avoid a federal environmental review.

 

In 1989, the association lost our claim that the entire Loop project required a federal environmental impact statement. Without federal funding, however, the Texas 45 SW project sat idle until state authorities decided to build it as a toll road.

 

Now, another lawsuit has been filed to compel a federal environmental impact study. Our association is among the individuals and groups listed as plaintiffs.

 

This time, endangered-species habitat is in the direct path of construction; the route passes through a federally permitted wildlife preserve — and there are connecting federal-aid road projects over the aquifer.

 

The above circumstances might finally force TxDOT to complete a federal impact study. We are waiting for the judge’s ruling. No matter the legality, the association views TxDOT’s present approach of avoiding review as disingenuous, shortsighted and bad public policy.

 

The National Environmental Policy Act calls on government agencies to examine alternatives before making irreversible commitments of resources.

 

We believe in using this law in the way it was intended: to achieve better use of our tax dollars and natural resources.

 

TxDOT’s attempted dodging of the act with “state-only” funding is financially counterproductive. Federal projects are eligible for matching funds at up to 80 percent of project cost. So, by spending $100 million in exclusively state funds on Texas 45 SW, TxDOT would forfeit up to $400 million in federal matching funds.

 

Also, once a project is deemed “federal,” Section 4(f) of the National Transportation Act comes into play. This law says highway builders who propose to go through a wildlife preserve must either pick another route or show good cause why they can’t.

 

The only choices presented by TxDOT were two: either build a tolled Texas 45 SW on the given route, or do nothing. No other strategies were considered, though alternatives exist.

 

One would be prioritizing other Austin-area transportation projects that don’t have funding secured. In their study document, TxDOT simply assumes in their traffic models that all other regional projects planned for the next 20 years get built before Texas 45 SW would open. In fact, the majority still lack funding, which they could receive if Texas 45 SW is designated as low priority.

 

Or let’s say instead that the purpose of project planning is to serve Hays County commuters, rather than looking at the entire Austin region. We should compare building this completely new road with funding upgrades to the already existing local routes that bring people into Austin from Hays County. This is the only way to determine which option relieves the most congestion and has the least impact on finances and the environment.

 

TxDOT eludes responsibility by pretending that Texas 45 SW is a stand-alone project with the environmental impacts limited only to the road right-of-way. Texans shouldn’t need federal sanctions to compel common-sense planning.

 

As more people move to Central Texas, the pressures on what makes Austin great increase. Traffic congestion is at the top of the list. We understand the impatience and frustration of drivers who must deal daily with this problem. But let us not destroy the very things that make Austin special.

 

If we do not protect our fragile natural resources by thoughtful, long-term planning, we are in real danger of losing all that we hold of such great value.

 

Hancock is president of Save Barton Creek Association. Beers is past president of the association.