State Highway 45 Gap Connector
SBCA submitted the following statement to the SH 45 Gap Study:
June 30, 2023
To Hays County and City of Buda officials:
Save Barton Creek Association respectfully states our opposition to the possible construction of the SH 45 Gap Connector between RM 1626 and I-35. We recognize that on paper, it seems logical to connect the southwestern and southeastern portions of SH 45. But we would point out that when the existing portion of SH 45 SW was constructed, it stopped at RM 1626 for reasons that were considered valid at the time. We believe that these reasons are still valid.
SBCA was founded in 1979, making us one of the oldest citizens’ environmental groups in Texas. The problems that we first saw with proposed developments in the Barton Creek watershed have been repeated by problematic development proposals throughout Central Texas. SBCA has expanded our geographic mission area accordingly, and has many members and supporters in Hays County.
We want to stress that SBCA is not anti-development; we are pro-water. We believe that development can be built in some environmentally sensitive areas, if built in smart ways. But we also believe that some areas cannot bear the impact of heavy development.
One such area is the region where the SH 45 Gap Connector would be located. SBCA has been concerned about SH 45 for decades. We filed suit in 1988 against the original construction plans for what was then billed as the Outer Loop for Austin.
Some of the arguments that have been raised against building the 45 Connector are about the negative impacts that creating a western bypass to I-35 would have on Austin and Travis County. SBCA agrees with these arguments, and we note that it will be difficult for Hays County and Buda to proceed with the 45 Connector without cooperation from their northern neighbors.
Still, we know that the effect of the 45 Connector on Austin and Travis County may understandably be of lesser concern to Hays County residents who feel that this road would solve some of their own local problems. That’s why SBCA wants to address two likely negative effects that the 45 Connector would have on the current residents who live near its possible route.
The primary negative impact that should concern residents of northern Hays County is the effect that the 45 Connector could have on local water sources. Undeveloped land with no or little impervious cover is able to absorb significant amounts of rain where it falls. This has been shown to be true even for the rocky land in the western parts of Central Texas. Long and wide stretches of highway, however, will block rain from being absorbed in the soil, which will lead to a significant increase in the amount of runoff during storms. This also means an increase in runoff pollution, because impervious surfaces are never clean. The rain that falls on these surfaces will wash off whatever’s on these surfaces.
This is also true for other forms of impervious cover, including roofs and parking lots. In order to analyze the potential effects of the 45 Connector, it’s necessary to consider not just the highway itself, but the new development that it will facilitate. The exhibits for the SH 45 Gap Study that were presented at the June 15 Open House Meeting include a map showing existing and proposed developments in the vicinity of the 45 Connector. The Persimmon subdivision, proposed by MileStone Community Builders, is of particular interest because the 45 Connector would run through it.
According to the legend on the Gap Study map, Persimmon is listed as “Active Development.” This is curious, since the City of Buda has yet to approve MileStone’s plans for Persimmon. The Gap Study’s development map also includes an inset map showing the Persimmon subdivision in greater detail. This inset map shows a light-blue corridor running through the upper part of Persimmon and labeled “Future SH 45.” It’s extremely curious that MileStone has already set aside this corridor, even though the exact route for the 45 Connector has yet to be determined, according to the Gap Study. The potential impact of runoff pollution in this area would thus be magnified. Dirty runoff would come not just from the 45 Connector, but also from Persimmon and any other future developments that would be built along the highway.
What are the water sources in this area that would be impacted? The 45 Connector would cross Onion Creek — one of the last pristine streams in Texas, as defined in the Pristine Streams Bill (HB 4146) that was passed by the Texas House in 2021. The highway’s route would also run close to Bear Creek. Both streams would suffer from increased runoff pollution.
In addition, the runoff pollution created by the 45 Connector and the development that it would facilitate could have a major impact on the wells in the area, which are monitored by the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District. It’s impossible to say exactly how many wells would be affected, since no route has been chosen yet for the 45 Connector. However, it’s possible to calculate how many wells are in the vicinity of the midpoint between RM 1626 and I-35. According to BSEACD data, 150 exempt wells and 62 permitted wells are located within a 2-mile radius of this midpoint, while 9 exempt wells and 2 permitted wells are located within a 1-mile radius. While not all of these wells would be affected by the 45 Connector and its associated development, some would. SBCA asks that Hays County and the City of Buda work with BSEACD to determine exactly how many wells could be affected, and in what way.
SBCA and our members and supporters are primarily concerned about the impacts of water pollution. But we also want to address the traffic impacts of the 45 Connector, since we know that many residents of northern Hays Country feel that it’s a necessary solution to the growing traffic problems in their area, and in particular to congestion along RM 1626.
SBCA knows that these traffic problems are real. However, we also believe that Hays County and the City of Buda should give their residents realistic expectations about how much traffic relief could be expected from the 45 Connector. At this point, it does become relevant to Hays County that SH 45, combined with MoPac, would create a western bypass to I-35. Moreover, it would likely be a free bypass as opposed to SH 130, the tolled eastern bypass. What this means is that the 45 Connector will come with pre-packaged and built-in traffic. The residents of northern Hays County will not have the highway to themselves — they will have to share it with vehicles coming from and going to I-35 and MoPac.
That’s why it’s important to look at existing intersections that are comparable to a fully built-out intersection of I-35 and the southern portion of SH 45. The most relevant comparisons are the intersection of I-35 and the northern portion of SH 45 in Round Rock, and the intersection of I-35 and US 290/SH 71 in south Austin. To say that both intersections have extremely heavy traffic is an understatement. Traffic slows to a crawl at rush hour on the flyovers at these intersections, and on the interstate itself.
These two existing intersections should be studied when estimating what the potential traffic load would be on a full intersection of I-35 and the southern portion of SH 45. We recommend that Hays County and Buda work with objective experts to determine what this load would be, and what actual travel times on the 45 Connector would be — not when it opens, but 5-10 years later, when most drivers on I-35 know that they can avoid the quagmire of downtown Austin at rush hour by jumping onto the 45 Connector.
SBCA knows that many local residents have already stated that the 45 Connector is a necessary solution to existing and future traffic problems in their area. That’s why we recommend that Hays County and Buda look at other possible solutions. The 45 Connector should be evaluated not in isolation, but in comparison to other alternatives. For example, would further expansion of RM 1626 and a ramped intersection at its connection with I-35 offer more benefit for local residents?
In closing, SBCA would like to point out that the area that would be bisected by the 45 Connector is currently a large area of mostly undeveloped green space that serves as a buffer between Buda and Austin. It also serves as a habitat for valuable wildlife. According to a map prepared in 2020 by the Hays County GIS Department, the area of the 45 Connector contains potential habitat for the endangered golden- cheeked warbler. Many residents moved to northern Hays County in part for this green space. SBCA urges the Hays County Commissioners Court to explore ways to save at least some of this area as a park or preserve.
Save Barton Creek Association and our members and supporters recognize that any potential solution to the growth problems in northern Hays County will come with tradeoffs. That’s why we recommend that the Gap Study examine in detail not just the potential benefits of the 45 Connector, but its potential drawbacks too, as well as the benefits and drawbacks of other alternatives. SBCA would like to offer any help and assistance that we can provide for the Gap Study. We appreciate your consideration of our comments.
For more information, please contact Brian Zabcik, SBCA Advocacy Director, at firstname.lastname@example.org