Residents along Brodie Lane in Southwest Travis County who want a highway to divert inbound commuters say Karen Huber is blocking the way.
Former County Judge Bill Aleshire, who lives on Brodie, suggested we check this statement from Huber, a Democrat campaigning to keep her Precinct 3 seat on the Travis County Commissioners Court: "I've never said, ‘Don't build it.' I've said, ‘Prove the cost-benefit is there.' "
That could prove of interest to Nov. 6 voters deciding between Huber and Republican opponent Gerald Daugherty, a staunch supporter of building Texas 45 Southwest — a 3.6-mile road that would connect FM 1626 and South MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1).
Huber has taken action against the project both as a commissioner and as a member of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. But has she supported not building it?
The comment Aleshire flagged came from a Sept. 17, 2012, Austin American-Statesman news story, so we began by talking to the newspaper’s transportation reporter, Ben Wear, and asking Aleshire for evidence contradicting Huber.
Wear and archived Statesman stories got us up to speed on the long-proposed project. Currently pitched as a four-lane tollway divided by a median, it’s been part of the CAMPO long-range transportation plan for years; the right-of-way for it was purchased in 1997.
Every five years, CAMPO’s board approves a rewrite of the 25-year plan, which looks at everything from roads, trains, planes, public transit and freight to bikes and feet in Travis, Williamson, Hays, Bastrop and Caldwell counties. "Any road or transit project that uses federal money, as most of them do, must be in the plan to qualify for that money," said a May 24, 2010, Statesman news story.
This stretch of Texas 45 Southwest was proposed in the mid-1980s as part of a Texas 45 that encircled the entire metropolitan area and was to be dubbed the Austin Outer Parkway. Some segments were later built, others abandoned.
Wear described the road’s potential impact today — or rather, sometime after 2020 to 2025, when construction might start under CAMPO’s plan — in his Feb. 5, 2012, column:
A horde of exurbanites from places such as Kyle and Buda comes up FM 1626 each weekday morning to go to work in Austin. Right now, those people have to then take crowded Brodie Lane (and then Slaughter Lane or William Cannon Drive) to get to MoPac. Texas 45 Southwest would allow those commuters a more or less straight shot to MoPac.
Critics of Texas 45 Southwest, including Huber, say there’s not enough evidence that the highway would ease Brodie traffic. They also cite environmental concerns, because the road would cross the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone.
In a June 11, 2010, opinion piece in the Statesman, Huber wrote:
Because of constraints on transportation funding, Texas 45 SW is now proposed as a toll road. No study yet demonstrates that commuters would pay the tolls and avoid Brodie. ... It is irresponsible to spend an estimated $100 million on Texas 45 SW without effectively justifying it.
Meanwhile, there are other projects of much more demonstrated need and much higher priority that must be built first, like increasing vehicle capacity on South MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) and improvements to the Y at Oak Hill.
According to Statesman news stories, Huber introduced a resolution in May 2010 asking her Commissioners Court colleagues to support culling 45 from the CAMPO plan. It passed 3-1, effectively ending county backing for the road.
Huber is also a member of the CAMPO board, which consists mainly of local elected officials. In that capacity, she made an unsuccessful motion later in May 2010 to drop 45 from the plan.
The board approved the plan with two votes against (one being Huber’s) and 17 votes in favor. The May 24, 2010, Statesman story quotes Huber: "We've got real priority problems in this plan. I cannot support this plan, because I cannot support business as usual."
The story said, "However, she did successfully knock down an eleventh-hour recommendation from TxDOT that construction on Texas 45 Southwest begin in 2015 rather than 2020."
Aleshire, whom we interviewed by phone and email, sent us news articles and documents describing Huber’s opposition to the road. None quoted Huber saying she wanted to stop the road outright, though they included instances of Huber offering reasons not to proceed immediately.
We asked editors at two local newspapers covering the Texas 45 issue whether they recalled or had reported Huber saying "Don’t build it" or something similarly unequivocal. Editor Will Atkins of the Oak Hill Gazette and managing editor Veronica Gordon of the Hays Free Press each told us by phone they did not recall such a statement. Atkins searched his paper’s archives, also finding no such statement.
While Aleshire acknowledged he didn’t have direct evidence, he told us that the "proof is her motion at Commissioners Court to remove it from the county plans and her motion at CAMPO to delete it from the Metropolitan Transportation Plan entirely, making the project ineligible for state or federal funding."
Were Huber’s actions to pull 45 out of the plan equivalent to saying "Don’t build it"?
In a phone interview, CAMPO director Maureen McCoy told us she didn’t think removing 45 from the plan would keep it from being built because it could later be restored to the plan by an amendment. It’s "not atypical" for a road to be added to the plan that way, she said.
If the road weren’t in the plan, it wouldn’t be eligible for federal funding. We asked TxDOT Austin spokesman Chris Bishop how likely it was that the state could build such a road. "We have done roads without it," he said. "Matter of fact, at one point I remember this was proposed as being done with state funds."
He recalled two nearby examples of roads built with state funding, albeit two decades ago: Texas 45 Southwest between FM 1826 and MoPac and the stretch of South MoPac to Texas 71/Ben White Boulevard.
Whether the puzzle pieces of state funding, local funding, potential toll revenues, etc., would come together for this road is a variable, he and McCoy said, as is the project’s eventual cost. McCoy pointed out that the study now being conducted on the road’s environmental impact could indicate, for example, that the road should have two lanes instead of four.
By telephone, Huber told us she’s been consistent in her position: "I’m saying, on that road, that I do not believe we should move forward with it till we conclude that it is going to do what they say it is going to do" (in easing Brodie traffic).
Now, in fact, Huber said she doesn’t mind keeping 45 in the CAMPO plan, because that allows the environmental study to continue.
"I just don’t believe we should go to construction until we have answers."
Huber claimed that she’s never said "don’t build" Texas 45 Southwest.
As far as we can tell, there’s no instance of Huber being so blunt. But her efforts to get the road pulled from the CAMPO plan and her stated desire not to proceed to construction without more information are evidence she doesn’t want the project built yet.
These important details are not reflected in her statement, which we rate Half True.