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Is the future of 45 Southwest tollway in doubt?

Like the Olympics, Texas legislators and Feb. 29, the question of whether to build Texas 45 Southwest seems to return every few years. It’s here again, with its familiar cast of frustrated suburbanites, distressed environmentalists and wavering politicians.

Last week was supposed to feature public discussion of a definitive study of the traffic ripples that building the 3.6-mile tollway between FM 1626 and MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) would cause on nearby roads, particularly Brodie Lane. And in October, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization is scheduled to vote on whether to pull Texas 45 Southwest out of the area’s long-range transportation plan, which would effectively snuff the road for the foreseeable future.

But the study was abruptly pulled off the table after the underlying population and employment projections, used to estimate traffic volume in 2025, with or without construction of Texas 45 Southwest, were deemed “undoubtedly flawed” by the planning organization’s executive director. And given that, the October vote may be delayed as well.

“I think it would be unwise for us to move until we have statistics that we are comfortable with,” said Travis County Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt, a member of the planning organization’s board. Two years ago, Eckhardt joined a majority of the Commissioners Court in calling for Texas 45 Southwest to be taken out of CAMPO’s 25-year plan.

“It’s not just road warriors who are concerned with the validity of these statistics, and it’s not just the environmentalists,” she told the American-Statesman.

That study, conducted jointly by the CAMPO staff and the University of Texas’ Center for Transportation Research, holds the promise of settling — or at least clarifying — a debate that has been going on for more than a decade about Texas 45 Southwest: By providing a direct route from northern Hays County to MoPac’s southern end, would the road relieve the often grinding traffic on Brodie and Slaughter Lane?

Or would it do so little good that it isn’t worth the cost and potential pollution of the Edwards Aquifer lying beneath the area, an underground network of water-bearing fissures that is the source of drinking water for as many as 60,000 people and of water for Barton Springs.

Counties at odds

Hays and Travis county leaders have been at odds over the issue for the past year or so after the Hays commissioners offered to put $5 million toward what they estimated would be a $22 million two- or three-lane, non-tolled version of Texas 45 Southwest. The idea was that Travis County, home to more than 90 percent of the proposed road, would provide the rest.

The other, much more expensive option — $90 million at least — would be a four-lane tollway, to be built and operated by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority. A $5 million environmental study looking at all the alternatives, including building nothing, began a year ago and should take at least four more years, said John Hurt, a spokesman with Texas Department of Transportation. TxDOT is paying for the study.

The Travis County commissioners told their Hays County counterparts that more information was needed, and the traffic study, which was to be done using CAMPO’s new and supposedly improved traffic modeling software, was initiated this spring. Meanwhile, the Austin City Council, in an amendment to its new Imagine Austin comprehensive plan, removed Texas 45 Southwest from that document and asked CAMPO to take it out of the Central Texas transportation plan as well.

Doing so would mean that the environmental study would come to a halt. And the project can’t happen without a federally approved environmental review.

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who serves on the 19-member CAMPO board, distanced himself last week from that council vote, saying that the Texas 45 Southwest language was amended into Imagine Austin with a “friendly amendment” and that his only choice was to vote for or against the entire plan. So it’s not clear if Leffingwell and the other three council members on the CAMPO board would all vote to take the road out of the long-range plan.

Finding the flaw

The traffic study that has since been deemed flawed was made public Sept. 3. It showed only a slight reduction of traffic on Brodie, Manchaca Road and FM 1626 if a four-lane tollway is built. And it predicted about 1,000 cars an hour would use the toll road during the morning commute period.

Hays County Commissioner Will Conley, who leads the CAMPO board and supports building Texas 45 Southwest, said the results didn’t look right to him.

“Overall, something didn’t seem to add up when you saw how it impacted the surrounding streets,” Conley said.

City of Austin officials, reviewing the study, quickly noticed that it assumed that population and employment figures in 2025 in about half of the area studied in southern Travis County and northern Hays County would decrease over the next 13 years. That would fly in the face of predictions of continued growth throughout Central Texas.

Conley ordered the study pulled down, and at a CAMPO meeting last week, he created a committee to find out what occurred. Bubba Needham, CAMPO’s assistant director, said later in the week that it was not yet clear whether the mistake came from poor data entry or a flaw in the software.

“It’s an embarrassment to (CAMPO) and certainly hurts our credibility,” Conley told the Statesman. “We’re going to investigate the situation and make sure something like this doesn’t happen again.”

CAMPO Executive Director Maureen McCoy said it should take two months to redo the study, putting its release after the October meeting. Even with a credible study in hand, however, it’s unclear if a majority of the CAMPO board would be ready to take Texas 45 Southwest out of the 25-year transportation plan.

Even Travis County Commissioner Karen Huber, whose Precinct 3 includes the path of the road and who joined the 2010 commissioners court vote asking for its removal from the plan, now wants to leave the road’s status unchanged so the environmental study can continue.

“I’ve never said, ‘Don’t build it.’ I’ve said, ‘Prove the cost-benefit is there,’ ” Huber said. “There’s a whole lot of unanswered questions. Personally, I’m happy for it to stay in the plan at this point.”

Contact Ben Wear at 445-3698

CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to clarify that Will Conley, and not Bubba Needham, said “It’s an embarrassment to (CAMPO) and certainly hurts our credibility.”

 

Cost breakdown

$22 million

Estimated cost of a two- or three- lane, nontolled version of Texas 45 Southwest. Hays County commissioners offered to put $5 million toward the project. Travis County would pay for the rest of the proposed project.

$90 million

Estimated cost of a four-lane tollway to be built and operated by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority.

$5 million

Cost of an environmental study that will look at all the alternatives, including building nothing. It began a year ago and should take a least four more years to complete.

 

 

Click here to read the original article courtesy of the Austin American-Statesman.

 

 

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