Future of South MoPac and Toll 45 projects are in front of a federal judge

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — A federal judge will soon decide if road developers must combine three environmental studies into one.

It would be a win for environmental attorneys affiliated with the Save Our Springs Alliance. The group has concerns that there’s been no way to measure the possible impact of how the three projects combined will affect the Edwards Aquifer or increase already heavy weekday traffic flow into downtown Austin from Hays County.

“At least let’s have an honest analysis, be up front that that’s what we’re doing, look at what the real harms are and then look at alternatives in how we might improve traffic flow for commuters north-south without making MoPac into I-35 West,” said SOS Attorney William Bunch outside federal court Wednesday.

Attorneys argued the new Toll 45 will add 30,000 vehicles a day onto MoPac and past the nearby Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center “jeopardizing its viability.” They contend, without a cumulative study, there’s no way to know the overall pollution impact on creatures like the endangered Blind Austin Salamander which make their home in the Edwards Aquifer, also a source of Austin’s drinking water.

Bunch compared the fate of the salamander to the proverbial “canary in the coal mine” where coal miners of old would bring a caged canary into their mine shaft. If the small bird died, they knew air quality was diminishing. Bunch said the salamander is Austin’s “canary in the aquifer.”

US District Court Judge Lee Yeakel also heard from attorneys from TxDOT and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority. They argued the state-required environmental studies have been completed for each of the three projects and the region can’t afford to delay the projects by years.

Already $100 million is committed to the Toll 45 Southwest project which broke ground in November after a temporary injunction ordered by Judge Yeakel, months after the SOS Alliance first filed suit. The connector highway would link from FM 1826 to South MoPac Expressway, itself the subject of a planned express lane project to and from Central Austin in the next few years.

A third project known as the South MoPac intersections or “underpasses” is part of the overall expansion plan.

Judge Yeakel is expected to rule on the SOS Alliance’s new study request later this year.

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