The long legal struggle over highways and the Barton Springs aquifer entered a new, but not unexpected, chapter Thursday.
Environmental groups and a number of individuals, including two former Austin mayors and an influential musician, filed a federal lawsuit seeking to prevent construction of three highway projects in South and Southwest Austin, including one that has been in planning for more than 25 years.
The Save Our Springs Alliance, Save Barton Creek Association and Clean Water Action, joined by former Mayors Frank Cooksey and Carole Keeton, singer Jerry Jeff Walker and others, argue that the Texas Department of Transportation split a single project into three pieces — Texas 45 Southwest, MoPac South and MoPac intersections — in violation of federal environmental law. Virtually all of the routes in question, including the proposed Texas 45 Southwest, overlay the recharge zone of the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer, which feeds Barton Springs and provides drinking water for tens of thousands of people.
The 35-page complaint filed midafternoon Thursday charges that TxDOT and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority knowingly sought to get around the law and that the projects, individually and taken together, would cause “pervasive environmental harm” to the aquifer and to the endangered salamanders that live at the springs.
“TxDOT and CTRMA took the formalistic bureaucratic course of dividing their planned actions into three pieces, and donned blinders that conveniently offer only a constricted view of the environmental consequences of the actions, confined to each individual piece,” says the complaint, authored by lawyers Renea Hicks, Dan Richards and Bill Bunch, the executive director of Save Our Springs.
The lawsuit also charges that the construction would materially harm the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and violate federal law. The center fronts on South MoPac’s east side near La Crosse Avenue.
The plaintiffs asked the federal court to issue a preliminary injunction against any construction on the three projects, and to reach a declaratory judgment that TxDOT and the mobility authority violated federal environmental law in environmental studies of Texas 45 Southwest (a study completed in 2015, but in the middle of what officials have characterized as minor amendments), the MoPac intersections project at Circle C (a study completed in December) and MoPac South (now undergoing an environmental review that should be complete later this year).
“They are suing against improvements in the second-most congested corridor in Central Texas,” Mike Heiligenstein, executive director of the mobility authority, said Thursday. “It’s the same old don’t-build-anything mentality. They cite platitudes about alternatives for commuters, but never offer a credible one.”
Construction was scheduled to start later this year on the 3.4-mile Texas 45 Southwest, a four-lane tollway that would connect South MoPac to FM 1626, as well as the intersections project, which involves the installation of underpasses on South MoPac at Slaughter Lane and La Crosse Avenue. The mobility authority would build Texas 45 Southwest. TxDOT is handling the intersections project.
Construction on the South MoPac project, in which the mobility authority would install toll lanes in the median from Lady Bird Lake to Slaughter, is at least a year away.
“There was no question this one was coming,” Heiligenstein said of the lawsuit. The effect on construction “remains to be seen. Now it’s in the hands of the court.”
TxDOT officials, saying that the agency hadn’t yet been officially served with the lawsuit, declined to comment Thursday.
The thrust of the complaint filed Thursday mirrors points Bunch has been making in the media and public forums for well over a year. Bunch has argued that expansion of South MoPac through toll lanes, elimination of traffic lights at Slaughter and La Crosse and the new road to FM 1626 are all part of a coordinated plan to transform MoPac from a west side highway to a regional loop and alternative to Interstate 35.
A fourth potential piece of such a loop, now in long-range plans but not yet under environmental review, would connect Texas 45 Southwest to I-35 near Buda.
“The program will have effects across the entire geographic range, not just on pieces of the mosaic,” the complaint says. “And these effects will fall most directly and heavily on one body of water that is the single most significant environmental feature in Austin and its Central Texas environs: the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer.”