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AGUA sues over US 281/Loop 1604 highway project
Wednesday, August 25, 2010

AGUA has filed a federal lawsuit to protect the Edwards Aquifer and endangered species living in the Aquifer’s recharge zone. It names as defendants the Federal Highway Administration, Amadeo Saenz, Jr. (TxDoT), the US Fish & Wildlife Service and Terry Brechtel (Alamo RMA).

What is at issue?

More information
News release
Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief

Our lawsuit involves the massive US 281/Loop 1604 interchange that defendants plan to construct over one of the most vulnerable areas of the aquifer recharge zone. Our lawsuit details how defendants violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.

Myths and Facts about the Lawsuit

Alamo Regional Mobility Authority has reacted to our lawsuit with inflammatory comments and misinformation. AGUA would like to set the record straight.

Myth: AGUA is at fault for delaying a needed project

Facts: If Alamo RMA and the Texas Department of Transportation would follow the law, the project would not be delayed. In 2008, TxDoT was caught rigging its environmental studies on the US 281 expansion, and had its federal clearances yanked as a result.

A non-tolled overpass and interchange solution was approved and environmentally cleared in 2002. But TxDoT failed to move on the project, instead choosing to pursue wildly unpopular toll roads and "public-private partnerships."

More recently, when economic stimulus money became available, our transportation agencies should have seized the funding opportunity for less-controversial mass transit and other sustainable transportation solutions that benefit both the economy and the environment. In the end, the blame is on the government bureaucrats and developers who are trying to make up for years of poor planning and mismanagement, while disregarding threats to the drinking water supply for millions of people.

Myth: Defendants have "gone to great lengths" to provide environmental studies and safeguards.

Facts: Instead of complying with laws intended to protect your health and drinking water supply, defendants are recklessly forging ahead using a “Categorical Exclusion” to avoid required environmental studies and safeguards. In doing so, they are exploiting the same loophole that BP used to hurry up and drill its "Deepwater Horizon" well.

This project is at the intersection of two hazmat routes. US 281 is a primary route and 1604 a local delivery route. A toxic spill could knock out wells supplying water for 100s of thousands of people. That risk increases exponentially when new highway lanes are added.

Despite that, ARMA failed to consider the danger of a hazardous material spill contaminating the water that 1.8 million people drink. It is folly to think that it can't happen.

Myth: The interchange will alleviate air pollution because cars won't be stuck in congestion.

Facts: Congestion will be worse during the 3 years this project is under construction. If there is any short-term benefit to air quality after completion, it will be overcome almost immediately by increased car and truck traffic and sprawl. If "mixmasters" actually helped air quality in the long-run, Houston would have fantastic air quality.

Commuters will be tortured by delays, since only the southern half of the interchange ramps will be built. Before the northern ramps are finished, commuters will have spent 5 or 6 years in construction zones; twice what is necessary. Your children may be off to college by that time.

Myth:The interchange is a small project that will have little impact on the aquifer and endangered species.

Map of Loop 1604/US 281 Interchange Project

Facts: This project is an integral part of the massive expansions of Loop 1604 and US 281. ARMA/TxDoT are pretending it's separate in order to claim it has no significant impact.

This pretense was rejected previously by a federal judge in his "Order Concerning the US 281 Toll Road Project", and it is likely the same ruling will occur in this case. In his order, he stated:

...it seems commonsensical that two intersecting parts costing billions would be connected to create an Aristotelian whole.

Alone, the interchange incorporates more than eight miles of added lanes along 1604 and 281, with years of construction delays and added air, noise and water pollution. These highways traverse the heart of the aquifer recharge zone and their cumulative impacts on the aquifer will be enormous.

Map of Loop 1604 and US 281 expansion projects

Paving over of the recharge zone, and the contributing zone to its north, will accelerate because of sprawl development induced by additional highway capacity. Contamination of your drinking water will follow. As configured, the interchange will limit alternatives for 281 and 1604, such as dedicated bus lanes and multiple transportation mode solutions, and very likely lock in toll roads for these highways.

US 281 Expansion Map

Myth: AGUA filed the lawsuit to make money/extort the taxpayers

Facts: AGUA is a non-profit organization run entirely by volunteers who take time away from their jobs to protect the aquifer. We neither profit from the lawsuit nor expect our group to benefit from it.

Indeed, the reality is far different from what ARMA wants you to believe. Your taxpayer money is being used by ARMA to mislead the public through expensive, professionally-crafted PR campaigns.

Who really stands to profit from this project? Wealthy developers and landowners who want taxpayers to foot the bill for the infrastructure needed to serve their new subdivisions and strip malls. Big highway construction companies. Toll road companies, potentially foreign-owned. Follow the money; it does not lead to AGUA.

Myth: "Thornton said officials tried to negotiate with AGUA but were met with silence"
Source: Express-News story

Facts: In reality, AGUA asked to meet with ARMA; we went to their offices; we made the effort to settle; ARMA did not agree to a single element of our settlement proposal or make a counterproposal. Just because a lawsuit has been filed does not mean settlement discussions cannot take place. AGUA is more than willing to continue the dialogue it initiated with ARMA, so long as it is productive.

Myth: It’s ridiculous to delay these highways to save a bunch of bugs.

Facts: The invertebrates are our canary in the coal mine; if they die, our water is in danger – and we violate federal water quality guidelines. Furthermore, our lawsuit also alleges violations of the National Environmental Policy Act pertaining to air pollution, water pollution, noise pollution and other environmental impacts.

Myth: AGUA is trying to stop all development.

Facts:  AGUA supports development that is not on the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone, a narrow strip of land in northern Bexar County where our sole source of water is replenished.  It is a scientific fact that more development over the recharge zone leads to a polluted aquifer, and we owe it to our children and grandchildren not to ruin this vital resource.

AGUA believes that our limited tax dollars should be used to promote dense, mixed use development inside Loop 410, with a focus on light rail, bike lanes, more parks and green spaces, and improved schools and infrastructure in the inner city.  We do not think our tax dollars should be used to subsidize millionaire developers who want to cover the recharge zone with strip malls and tract houses.