- Ben Wear American-Statesman Staff
Just as work is wrapping up on one end of MoPac Boulevard, with the opening Saturday of the rest of the northbound toll lane, crews are planning to start a different project in January on the highway’s south end.
Assuming a lingering lawsuit doesn’t put that work on hold.
The Texas Department of Transportation has selected a contractor to add underpasses to South MoPac at Slaughter Lane and La Crosse Avenue. The $53.5 million contract is with Webber LLC, based in The Woodlands, north of Houston.
The project would add two lanes in each direction to bypass the traffic signals at those cross-streets — in effect, making South MoPac an expressway all the way to its south end. MoPac would then link up with the Texas 45 Southwest tollway now under construction, extending the traffic-light-free route to FM 1626 south of Manchaca.
Construction began last fall on the four-lane Texas 45 Southwest, and bridges at several points are well underway, as is paving preparation up and down the 3.6-mile corridor. The tollway project is projected to end in late 2019, followed about six months later by completion of the Slaughter and La Crosse underpasses on MoPac, officials said.
Environmentalists have fought both projects. A dozen groups and activists filed a lawsuit in February 2016 arguing Texas 45 Southwest, the MoPac underpasses and the proposal for toll lanes along South MoPac are all interconnected and should have been examined with one environmental study. Instead, TxDOT and the tollway-building Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority conducted individual studies on each project.
U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel ruled against the environmentalists in October 2016, allowing construction to start on Texas 45 Southwest while the lawsuit was pending. He threw out the lawsuit the following August.
But a separate lawsuit, also in Yeakel’s court, is still pending over the MoPac underpasses project.
The Save Our Springs Alliance and Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity filed a federal lawsuit in July 2016 alleging that the underpass construction and resulting road with greater traffic would harm two endangered salamander species and the golden-cheeked warbler, also endangered.
Specifically, the lawsuit called for TxDOT, which had gotten environmental clearance in 2015 to build the underpasses project, to conduct an official “consultation” with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine if that agency agreed the work would result in such harm.
That consultation put off construction that at one point seemed poised to occur in late 2016. The federal agency later ruled that the project “was not likely to affect listed species,” according to Bill Bunch, executive director of Save Our Springs.
“It became a different suit in challenging that conclusion,” Bunch said. The plaintiffs amended their lawsuit to sue U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service along with TxDOT and argued that its ruling had been “arbitrary and capricious,” Bunch said. The case has not been set for trial.
TxDOT, backed up by the federal regulators, has argued that its design of the road and construction plan will result in little or no effect on the salamanders, and that the 2-mile area of the project is already significantly urbanized and not prime habitat for the warbler.
So far, Save Our Springs and its fellow plaintiff have not filed any sort of motion to prevent the start of construction on the intersections project. But Save Our Springs lawyers have not ruled out that possibility.