Fate of Texas 45 Southwest toll road project now in judge’s hands


Judge heard arguments in one-day trial over Texas 45 Southwest, MoPac projects. Ruling to come.

A dozen plaintiffs argue the environmental impact of three road projects should have been studied together.

Two road agencies say the segment for Texas 45 Southwest has been sufficiently studied.

Opponents of plans to build the Texas 45 Southwest toll road returned to federal court on Wednesday, asking a judge to stop the project now under construction and send planners back to the drawing board.

Critics have long argued the 3.6 mile-long toll road, the subject of fierce debate in Austin for three decades, would harm the environment. Supporters and transportation planners have countered the fears are overblown and argued the additional infrastructure is badly needed.

RELATED: A primer on the court battle over Texas 45 Southwest, MoPac

A dozen plaintiffs, including several Austin environmental groups and former mayors Carol Keeton and Frank Cooksey, charge the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority and Texas Department of Transportation improperly separated the study on the toll road’s environmental impact from two other nearby proposals: adding toll lanes to the southern portion of MoPac Boulevard and new underpasses for the MoPac intersections at Slaughter Lane and La Crosse Avenue.

Only by looking at the impact of all three projects together, they argue, could officials certify the total package of road projects would not endanger the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone that feeds Barton Springs or the habitat of federally protected species, such as the golden-cheeked warbler.

RELATED: Will song of a single bird delay an Austin highway?

“The cumulative impacts of these cumulative projects need to be addressed in a single analysis,” argued attorney Renea Hicks (no relation to the reporter). He later pointed to the traffic analysis done for Texas 45 Southwest, which included the other projects, and said: “If they’re together for traffic, they’re together for environmental (review).

His argument was continued by attorney Bill Bunch, the executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, which is one of the plaintiffs.

“There is not a single traffic study that looks at what happens if you just build (Texas) 45,” Bunch added.

U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel, who presided over the one-day trial Wednesday, did not indicate when he would issue a ruling.

But he heard many of the same arguments last October when he rejected the plaintiffs’ bid for an injunction to prevent land-clearing until the case came to trial. Yeakel ruled then that the plaintiffs had “failed to establish a substantial likelihood of success” in the case, a ruling upheld by appellate judges two weeks later.

Land-clearing began in November and now construction on the road has begun.

RELATED: The long and winding road to Texas 45 SW groundbreaking

Attorneys representing the road authorities repeatedly pointed to their October win in their arguments Wednesday afternoon.

“Not only has nothing changed,” attorney Casey Dobson told Yeakel, “you’ve already been affirmed on the point.”

Regional transportation officials have long included the segment — nearly identical to the proposed Texas 45 Southwest — in plans that call for a southern link between MoPac and the region’s other major freeway, Interstate 35.

But for as long as those plans have existed, so have its critics. A previous, similar federal lawsuit was settled in 1992. Area voters backed spending bond money on the project in 1997.

“This road has been studied long enough,” Dobson said. “It has been studied by the right people under the right standards.”

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