I couldn’t help but shake my head at the timing Tuesday.
On the morning when road crews were moving onto a muddy field along FM 1626 to begin clearing land for Texas 45 Southwest — a planned four-lane highway hung up for three decades by a series of environmental, bureaucratic and financial obstacles — voters in Travis County Precinct 3 were headed to the polls to decide whether to retire Commissioner Gerald Daugherty.
Daugherty, a Republican who has been Texas 45 Southwest’s Galahad and string-puller-in-chief since first going on the Commissioners Court in 2002, was facing Democrat David Holmes. With the benefit of a huge early voting turnout in true-blue Travis County, the lightly funded Holmes seemed to have the wind at his back.
Daugherty happened to call me that morning, inquiring about how I thought it would go with Austin’s transportation bond proposition. But I asked him about his prospects, too. Daugherty allowed as how he might survive the contest, assuming he didn’t get “Trumped.”
As we all learned late that evening, Donald Trump himself didn’t get trumped. And neither did Daugherty, who escaped with a 5,300-vote margin and 52 percent of the vote.
That he won — outperforming the Republican presidential candidate, who got just 38.4 percent of the vote in Precinct 3 — was directly tied to that construction site. Daugherty’s long quest to build the 3.6-mile road, now to be a tollway between South MoPac Boulevard and that spot on FM 1626 south of Manchaca, appears to have finally succeeded. And apparently that sat well with both Republicans and a good number of Democrats in his precinct.
It’s worth noting Holmes didn’t make a campaign issue of the road, telling the Statesman, “I’m only focusing on what happens next. I’m confident I’m never going to get a vote on 45.”
Seizing the opening
Texas 45 Southwest had already been on local transportation plans for about 15 years, and had survived a federal lawsuit, when Daugherty first took office. Travis County voters in 1997 approved a bond issue setting aside money to buy the right of way, and that purchase had already occurred by 2002. But the highway, at that point envisioned as a nontolled road, wasn’t that high on the Texas Department of Transportation’s priority list.
Then, in April 2004, Texas 45 Southwest appeared on a huge, game-changing toll road plan devised by TxDOT. Daugherty, in an interview last week, said he had been fine with that at the time. But what he didn’t like in that plan was a decision to slap tolls on a South MoPac bridge over William Cannon Drive, a project already under construction as a free road. Daugherty, already known as a fan of all things road in local political circles, shocked everyone by coming out against that part of the plan.
TxDOT before long caved to the pressure and took the MoPac/William Cannon bridge off the toll list. But Daugherty’s stance had not won him any points with Ric Williamson, at that time the powerful chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission and an evangelist for toll roads. Texas 45 Southwest languished.
Then, in 2008, Daugherty was defeated by Democrat Karen Huber, who had painted him as ineffectual on the Texas 45 Southwest issue. That put him on the sideline for the next four years. Huber, meanwhile, turned on Texas 45 Southwest while in office, at one point pushing (unsuccessfully) to take it out of long-range transportation plans.
Re-enter Daugherty in 2012, making Huber’s stance on the road central to his campaign to take back the court seat. He won.
Then Daugherty and Texas 45 Southwest caught a break. Longtime Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe announced he would be stepping down at the end of 2014. Precinct 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt, not a fan of the proposed tollway, decided to run for Biscoe’s position, but that meant she had to leave the court during the campaign. Her appointed replacement, former Austin Mayor Bruce Todd, aligned with Daugherty on Texas 45 Southwest.
Daugherty saw an opening, at least through the end of 2014, when Todd would be replaced by Brigid Shea, a solid opponent of building Texas 45 Southwest.
“I had to make hay while the sun shines,” Daugherty said last week.
Daugherty convinced allies on the Hays County Commissioners Court (a small piece of Texas 45 Southwest will be in that county) to commit $5 million to the road project. And with Todd temporarily on board — and Biscoe and Commissioner Margaret Gómez on his side as well — Daugherty got a commitment for $15 million from Travis County. Then he made sure the check was cut and in the hands of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority before Shea joined the court.
A critical switch
With what appeared to be a solid commitment from TxDOT to give or loan the rest of the $108 million needed to build the tollway, Daugherty seemed to have the road wired.
And TxDOT, after executing a money shuffle in 2013 that meant no federal funds would be going to the tollway (should it ever happen), began an environmental study under state rules, not federal law. That seemingly mundane switch would turn out to be critically important when the lawyers later got involved.
But then toll roads fell into bad odor with the Legislature — and with new Gov. Greg Abbott. And the project, because of design elements meant to make it as environmentally safe as possible, grew more expensive. That promised funding for Texas 45 Southwest teetered as Abbott’s appointees to the Texas Transportation Commission took a second look at TxDOT’s promises to the project.
After “a lot of maneuvering, a lot of phone calls” and some help from state Rep. Paul Workman, a Republican who represents a district that includes the road, Daugherty got a final commission vote on the TxDOT funding this summer.
Meanwhile, however, the long-predicted lawsuit from the Save Our Springs Alliance and 11 other plaintiffs, including two former Austin mayors, hit the federal courthouse in February. That suit, among other arguments, said that Texas 45 Southwest should have been studied in combination with two proposed South MoPac expansions as a single, inextricably linked, federal project.
That’s where the state funding, and consequent state environmental study, came back into the picture.
With the construction looming and a trial on the lawsuit still months away, the plaintiffs last month asked for an injunction to delay clearing of trees and other vegetation on the Texas 45 Southwest corridor. The lawyers talked all day, in effect arguing the merits of the final case. The project rested on U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel’s shoulders.
Yeakel rejected the injunction and then, on Nov. 4, an appeals court upheld his ruling. Cue the big iron.
The lawsuit is still pending, of course. Clearing land is one thing; actually building the road is another. Daugherty remains wary.
“There are still people saying, ‘He’s never going to get it done,’ ” Daugherty said. “But I was never going to let it go.”