Written and issued by Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Mark Jones on behalf of the Hays County Commissioners Court, this commentary originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on July 16, 2012. Also see a related press release issued June 13, 2012.

 

State Highway 45 Southwest’s Regional Connector: Build It Right, But BUILD It

 

On June 14 the Austin City Council deleted the proposed 3.5-mile SH 45 SW Regional Connector roadway project between Loop 1 (MoPac) in Travis County and FM 1626 in Hays County from its Comprehensive Plan, even though this important project has been in the long range plans of the City of Austin and the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) for decades. The City Council also directed city staff to request deletion of the proposed roadway from the CAMPO 2035 Regional Transportation Plan.

That's a bad idea for Austin's Hays County neighbors, but an even worse idea for Austin residents themselves.

Hays County and Austin residents are part of a single unified metropolitan economy and social network, as indicated by the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2010 designated Austin Urbanized Area.  The Austin Urbanized Area includes the City of Austin and ten adjacent cities, including Buda and Kyle in Hays County.  Of the 1.36 million people in the Austin Urbanized Area, about 800,000 (58 %) live in the City of Austin.  The remaining 42 % live in adjacent areas, including 52,000 people already living in Buda, Kyle and northern Hays County. 

We are all part of a regional “city” of 1.36 million people.  40% of Hays County residents work in Austin and about 20% of the students communing to Texas State University in San Marcos come from Austin.  

Many Hays County, Buda, and Kyle residents use FM 1626 - a narrow, 2-lane rural roadway - to reach Loop 1 (MoPac) via Brodie Lane and Slaughter Lane, thus creating severe congestion in the Shady Hollow neighborhood and South Austin.   No one, and most particularly the residents of Shady Hollow, South Austin and northern Hays County, is helped by ignoring this reality.  

Hays County has acted to resolve the situation by putting up $70 million to expand FM 1626 into a four-lane divided roadway all the way to the Travis County line, where it would intersect with the proposed SH 45 Southwest Regional Connector to Loop 1. We in Hays County have done all that we can do - it is now up to Travis County and CAMPO.

It is critical that the SH 45 Regional Connector be built or congestion in Austin and hays County neighborhoods will only increase.

Critics of the project contend that it would threaten an environmentally sensitive area and “cause” additional population growth.

Environmental issues in our fragile Central Texas home are a serious concern and worthy of intense scrutiny, but we as a region have nearly a century's worth of technological experience and expertise in dealing with those issues. We value the sensitive environment in the Barton Springs area within Travis and Hays counties, and believe that the roadway can be built and maintained with minimal environmental effect.  A large part of Austin lies in the recharge zone and the City has adopted some of the nation's most sophisticated performance regulations to protect water quality and environmental resources when roadways are constructed or enlarged.

For example, the City of Austin and TxDOT are currently co-sponsoring the construction of new freeway flyovers at the Loop 1 (S) – US 290 (W) interchange to ease congestion.  This interchange is located in the middle of the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone and state of the art water quality structures have been installed along the highway to prevent degradation of groundwater.

An Austin City Staff report on SH 45 SW written in August, 2011 states “While development of any major roadway will alter the natural landscape, it is technically feasible to avoid, minimize, and mitigate impacts in a manner consistent with a goal of non-degradation.”  In 2011 the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority sponsored a “Green Mobility Challenge” to elicit proposals for building SH 45 SW (the “Manchaca Greenway”) with minimal environmental impact.  The winning proposals, which are shown on the CTRMA website, illustrate Best Management Practices for protecting vegetation, wildlife, endangered species, caves and groundwater through careful design and intensive storm water management practices in the construction and operation of the roadway.

That the SH 45 SW project would “cause growth” is demonstrably false, a mere smokescreen meant to confuse the issue, and a variation of the discredited notion of "don't build it and they won't come."

For ten years, Hays County “didn't build it" and they still came:  population grew by 60% between 2000 and 2010, from about 100,000 to 160,000 people during ten years when there was no significant roadway expansion in Hays County. We are now having to rapidly expand roadways to catch up with this growth.  We have all seen that population continues to grow in Central Texas without regard to whether adequate roadways are in place.  Despite being one of the most congested cities in the country according to annual Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) studies, Austin is one of the fastest growing cities in the country.  Regarding the lower level of traffic congestion in San Antonio relative to Austin, the author of the TTI study was quoted as saying: "The couple of decades that Austin spent not building roads hoping people would not come, San Antonio spent that time building roads."

SH 45 can be built with access restrictions that limit sprawl along the roadway. It can be built with all of the environmental protections our ingenuity can contrive.  It can be built with all the associated green space, landscaping, and neighborhood protections we desire. But it must be built.