Travis County is now an official supporter of the controversial Texas 45 Southwest, but that backing might be short-lived. Voters will pick a new county judge and a new county commissioner next year, and most of the candidates are against the project.
During his first stint in office from 2002 to 2008, Commissioner Gerald Daugherty was an ardent supporter of the proposed 3.6-mile toll road connecting the southern end of MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) with FM 1626 in Hays County, and he ran last year under the promise of getting the road built. Daugherty unseated Karen Huber, who led a county vote in 2010 to not support the project, and this year he joined County Judge Sam Biscoe on the five-member panel as an open supporter of the project.
On Tuesday, Daugherty led a 4-0 vote to support the project, with Commissioner Ron Davis absent.
Travis County isn’t deciding whether to build the road — as a state highway, it is under the aegis of the Texas Department of Transportation — but what the commissioners say matters. With Daugherty back in office, the project has picked up steam, and TxDOT began a two-year environmental study needed to build the road. When Huber was in office from 2009 to 2012, the project stalled.
Former Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt remained the most vocal opponent of 45 Southwest on the Commissioners Court until May, when she resigned to run for Biscoe’s seat. To fill her seat through 2014, Biscoe appointed former Austin mayor and lobbyist Bruce Todd, putting a third supporter of the road in office.
“I don’t understand why this is being brought forward now, other than this is a small window before Judge Biscoe is gone and Commissioner Todd is gone. … Two of your four votes aren’t going to be here in a little over a year,” said Bill Bunch, executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance.
Both candidates to replace Biscoe, who is retiring, at the start of 2015 — Eckhardt and Andy Brown — spoke against the project at the commissioners’ meeting Tuesday, joined by Brigid Shea, a candidate for the Precinct 2 commissioner’s seat that Todd will vacate.
“I don’t think that the solution is to compound the problems by building more public infrastructure over our most sensitive watershed,” Shea said.
The long-planned road would be built over the recharge zone of the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer and through a habitat for rare and endangered species. In June, TxDOT started a two-year study of the project’s environmental effects, a necessary move before it could be built. Opponents of the road asked commissioners to wait for the results of that review before backing the project.
But county voters made their voices heard in a 1997 bond election, Daugherty said, with 59.7 percent supporting borrowing $3.5 million to buy the land for the road. Commissioners also heard Tuesday from about a dozen residents from the Shady Hollow neighborhood along Brodie Lane and from northern Hays County who thanked Daugherty for his backing of the project.
“It is really time to move forward with the will of the people 16 years ago,” Daugherty said.
The tollway is designed to ease congestion in southern Travis and northern Hays counties, including traffic on Brodie Lane. Population in the area around the road is projected to increase 86 percent, to 93,000 residents, from 2010 to 2035, leading to a similar increase in the number of cars on area roads, according to a TxDOT document about the project published last month.
Recent estimates put the project’s price tag at $75 million to $100 million. Daugherty has said he is hopeful construction could start in 2015.
Bunch doubted projections that the toll road would ease traffic. Bunch pointed to a 2007 TxDOT study that found the road will increase traffic on MoPac. And, the study said, Brodie will still have more traffic in the future, though less than if Texas 45 Southwest isn’t built.
Another Precinct 2 candidate, Garry Brown, who was Huber’s chief of staff, said in a phone interview that he opposes the road. Candidate Richard Jung said by telephone that he is still researching the project and hasn’t made up his mind.
Commissioner Margaret Gómez, who supported the road Tuesday, is running for re-election next year. No opponents have announced their candidacy for that Precinct 4 seat.
There was brief discussion about delaying a vote one week to allow all five commissioners to be present, including Davis, who had voted to not support the project in 2010. Daugherty said that he told Davis about the resolution two weeks ago, and Davis had said he didn’t want Daugherty to delay the vote for him to be present.