US 281 construction over Recharge Zone to start — in spite of judge's bad poetry

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By Michael Barajas

mbarajas@sacurrent.com

An unusually poetic statement from the local Chief U.S. District Judge was enough for developers to say they’ll go ahead with construction on the U.S. 281/Loop 1604 interchange within the next two weeks, despite the ongoing court battle over the project.

In the case of a local environmental group’s lawsuit challenging the proposed interchange, Chief U.S. District Judge Fred Biery ended an advisory issued Tuesday with a poem that read, in part, “The justice wheel, unlike the speedy eel, / Will turn slowly out the Court’s opinion.”

The proposed interchange, while designed to alleviate congestion in a growing part of the city, has drawn fire from local environmentalists with Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas (AGUA) who have said the multi-million dollar project threatens endangered species and the aquifer that gives the city its drinking water.

The $130 million project would add about six miles of new lanes and ramps stretching across the Edwards Aquifer’s recharge zone, a particularly sensitive area where water seeps in to replenish the supply. AGUA’s suit, filed in August, claims the proposed interchange violates both the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.

AGUA filed for a preliminary injunction in December to try to stop the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority, the project’s developer, from going forward with construction.

In a rather flowery tone, Judge Biery “respectfully reminded” both sides how busy his court is – three federal judges handling over 600 pending felony cases, which take precedence, and 633 other civil cases. The judge also reminded both parties that their case, which he dubbed “The Little Critter Trilogy” in apparent reference to endangered cave beetles that call the aquifer home, has already ballooned to over 10,000 pages of legal documents.

While the judge didn’t rule on the request for an injunction (he said he would “make every effort” to get to it within six months), the advisory prompted the ARMA to announce that it would go forward with the project as scheduled. “Within the next two weeks drivers can expect to see construction equipment moving into this area to start work on the interchange,” the developer said.

Enrique Valdivia, AGUA’s president and attorney, remarked, “A little poetry does us all well.”

Still, Valdivia said he was disappointed that ARMA has decided to go ahead with construction, and said there are serious environmental concerns that have yet to be addressed by the developer.

“It’s no solution to just rush through construction,” he said. “I think it’s just really irresponsible. It would be hard for us to pick a more sensitive area than that area.”

Without a judgment from Biery, it looks like motorists could see construction crews move in sooner rather than later.

Biery’s poem reads: “Like no fine wine before its time, / The justice wheel, unlike the speedy eel, / Will turn slowly out the Court’s opinion / Drafted and crafted by judicial minions, / While the Edwards is polluted by vehicles commuted, / and / The motorist sits, / Having 281/1604 fits.”

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