Saturday, August 09, 2008

281 'Hogwash' threatens Edwards Aquifer

TxDOT documents not reassuring about toll-road concerns


Carlos Guerra
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2008

Long faulted for its arrogance, the Texas Department of Transportation also is under fire for embracing toll roads.

They are forced to because gas taxes can't meet growing highway needs, TxDOT officials say. So they will finance a lot of new highway lanes by tolling new and existing roads, and by handing some publicly owned right-of-way to private toll-road builders and operators in exchange for letting them collect tolls for decades.

TxDOT and the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority plan to pay for a huge expansion project by tolling 70 miles of U.S. 281, Loop 1604 and other area highways.

“It's a massive, multibillion-dollar project over the most sensitive parts of the (Edwards Aquifer) recharge zone,” says Bill Bunch, an attorney who, along with Andrew Hawkins, represents Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas and Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom.

Construction on the 281-1604 project — which will be 19 lanes wide in parts — started in late 2005, and within weeks, a contractor ruptured a sewer main, spilling raw sewage for three weeks before it was fixed.

The two groups sued TxDOT and the regional mobility authority over their environmental assessment — required by the National Environmental Policy Act to get federal funds — which the groups say is flawed and grossly insufficient.

And they sued the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) for approving TxDOT's environmental assessment and demanded a more extensive environmental impact statement (EIS) before irreparable harm is done to the aquifer.

The massive highways will traverse numerous recharge features and a lot of the Edwards' contributing zone. That notwithstanding, TxDOT's environmental assessment included a “finding of no significant impact,” which in bureaucratize is written: “FONSI.”

Bunch and Hawkins pressed their case, and just before it went to court, TxDOT and the RMA raised the white flag and the federal agency “disapproved” TxDOT's environmental assessment, forcing the state agency and the RMA to conduct the much more extensive EIS.

In the conduct of legal discovery, the attorneys recently uncovered some apparently damning documents.

In TxDOT's environmental assessment, the agency asserts that it “coordinated with” and “solicited comments and input regarding the proposed action and potential issues that should be considered during the development of the environmental assessment” from a number of agencies, one of which was the Edward Aquifer Authority.

“Hogwash,” says Hawkins. “We scoured everything in (TxDOT's) administrative record and found no letter asking for comment or coordination.”

In fact, all they found was a “Record of Conversation” of a 25-minute phone call made by a TxDOT contractor to an aquifer authority staffer asking for technical info. That isn't exactly “comment and coordination.”

But to be on the safe side, the attorneys checked with the aquifer authority for any correspondence whatsoever from TxDOT from December 2005 to the present concerning the planned toll roads on U.S. 281 and Loop 1604. “And they wrote us back saying we have nothing, no e-mail, no correspondence. Nothing,” Bunch says.

The lawyers did find two e-mails from a TxDOT geologist and a biologist that raise questions about the impartiality of their science.

In one to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the biologist wrote: “At the moment we are trying to get a FONSI from the FHWA by September.”

And the geologist wrote a colleague at TxDOT saying that he was “unclear on ... the extent to which we need to study (the) 1604 corridor,” before adding, “plus I know mgmt want to get (the) FONSI on 1604 right after 281 so we really need to get working on both.”

Portions © 2008 KENS 5 and the San Antonio

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