By Carol Cespedes, Fix290 Coalition
An expressway through Oak Hill? Sounds like a great idea, right? Residents of southwest Travis County and beyond have been frustrated for more than a quarter century by traffic congestion on Highways 290/71 West heading out of Austin for the Hill Country. If TxDOT is finally getting ready to fix the problem, who would ever want to complain?
As a twenty-year resident of Windmill Run, one of the neighborhoods locked between the forks of the Y formed by the 290-71 intersection, I surely share the frustration. But as the Department of Transportation generated a fix to the problem, I saw a cure that might be worse than the disease. Plans released to the public in 2005 showed a behemoth elevated highway that dwarfed the scenic Convict Hill bluffs, covered the green corridor along Williamson Creek, wiped out beautiful ancient oak trees, and created a three-level interchange at the Y intersection, creating visual blight and amplifying highway noise across our beautiful residential neighborhood.
Neighborhood folks rose up to complain, and we were joined by activists concerned about water quality and tree preservation as well as the prospect of tolling the major highway leading out of Southwest Austin – because the highway was designated as a toll road, and that in itself created new burdens for the neighborhood. It wasn’t simply a matter of paying the tolls. It was because highways built for tolling take a certain design.
Under Texas law, no existing highway can be tolled without providing an equal number of free lanes. In other words, six tolled lanes needed to be matched by six free lanes making a total of 12 lanes across, a prodigious expanse of concrete through the heart of one of the loveliest corridors to Austin. To function at a financial optimum, the tolled lanes need to be significantly faster and more efficient than the nontolled lanes beside them. In other words the choice is between paying the toll and being stuck in traffic. With entrances to the tolled lanes necessarily limited, local residents are fated to be stuck in traffic with the rest of the toll-avoiding commuters from western suburbs.
Those who refused to accept TxDOT’s plans for an elevated toll road got together and called themselves Fix290. Leadership arose spontaneously – anyone who was willing to hang in and work for the cause without pay. We developed an email list and an online petition signed by more than two thousand individuals. We were endorsed by ten local neighborhood and environmental organizations. Perhaps most important, we didn’t just say “no.” We discovered an alternative concept for building a highway known as a “parkway,” defined in the TxDOT manual as a freeway without frontage roads. Bruce Melton, a professional civil engineer living in our neighborhood, volunteered his time to produce a conceptual drawing to show that a ground level six-lane parkway between the bluffs and the creek could be built without disturbance to the creek or the beautiful heritage oak trees that grew nearby. That drawing became the vision for “The Oak Hill Parkway.”
The movement to build a parkway met stout resistance from TxDOT and highway interests between 2005 and 2007, and in October 2007 the CAMPO (Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization) board voted to approve TxDOT’s plans as part of a toll-funded package. Then two game-changing events occurred. The first was a letter from the Federal Highway Administration informing TxDOT that their 1988 environmental study for the project was no longer valid. The second was the national economic disaster of 2008 that made it impossible to find bond funding for toll bonds. There was no money for the road and the project needed to restart with a proper Environmental Impact Study.
That has been happening over the last two years as a new and more open administration in TxDOT and the CTRMA (Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority) comes back to include the community in the process of planning the future highway. Let’s be clear that this is not the same as that highway widening project now underway on 290 West. The current construction known as “interim improvements” is designed to take care of traffic flow for the next ten years. At some point during this time construction of the final highway will begin. It will shape this community and the region forever, so we must get it right.
At public meetings last year, the project was named “Oak Hill Parkway,” but Fix290 advocates are disappointed to find that designs selected by TxDOT and announced to the public in June still fall short of our goals. From the perspective of neighborhoods near the Y, we have two critical problems to solve:
Preserving the green Gateway to Oak Hill - Alternative A and C deal with the problem of providing both main lanes and frontage road through the pinch point between Williamson Creek and the Convict Hill bluffs by squeezing the creek to the maximum (actually overhanging it in the case of Alternative A) and building one roadway through what is now Freescale property. Alternative C swings the mainlanes north of the creek – but the greenbelt is sandwiched between two highways, which make it problematic for use as a pleasant park or trail area. Further, both alternatives rely on elevation of mainlanes to cross William Cannon that will reach an estimated 25 feet, effectively overwhelming the view of the bluffs and bringing the din of passing traffic to residents at the top of Convict Hill. Alternative F, which was developed by TxDOT with input from Fix290 activists, shows William Cannon bridging over 290 with the lanes of 290 kept at grade level. The creek-bluff pinch is avoided by eliminating the frontage roads.
Connectivity and noise for neighborhoods and business. In Alternatives A and C local drivers will use one-way frontage roads to the point where a U is permitted in order to cross over or under the main lanes when they need to head the other direction. These possible turn around points between the place where the freeway currently ends and Scenic Brook Drive are too few and far between, requiring long detours and denying local residents access to the highway into Austin. Alternative F, on the other hand, proposes two-way frontage roads (think “streets”) whenever possible and offers more points of access to the main lanes. Further, by keeping the highway at or below grade and minimizing elevation at the Y, Alternative F will generate significantly less noise than the 25 foot elevated highway that Alternatives A and C both show as continuing on 71 through the Y to a point near Jack Allen’s, thereby effectively dividing the commercial center of western Oak Hill.
Cost. One more issue needs to be recognized – the financing of construction. We have been down this path at least twice before and seen funding evaporate as the money runs out. One of the powerful arguments for a non-elevated, minimal frontage design is that it is much simpler and therefore less expensive. If this is the case, the possibility that it can be built without tolling increases – especially since Texas Proposition 1 on the November ballot amends the state constitution to allocate rainy day fund money to highway construction provided those highways are not tolled. This is an important argument for the parkway design alternative and an underpinning for the recent Austin City Council recommendation that the ongoing environmental impact study include a “non-elevated and non-tolled parkway design.”
Arguments for one design over another are more complex and technical than can be addressed in a quick newspaper piece. CTRMA has provided images of the parkway concepts on the official project website http://www.oakhillparkway.com while a critique of the designs and proposals for the parkway are posted on the Fix290 website at http://fix290.org.
That is what the fuss is about and the reason that with the support of a resolution passed last week by the Austin City Council we are still urging TxDOT and the CTRMA to do better in helping us achieve our vision of a parkway through Oak Hill.
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