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Commissioners nix Hamilton Pool Road redesign

Wednesday, June 2, 2010 by Michael Kanin

On Tuesday, Travis County Commissioners Court acted to halt proposed safety improvements to Hamilton Pool Road. In the process, Pct. 3 Commissioner Karen Huber attached an amendment instructing staff to hold 2005 bond funds that might have been spent on the project in reserve, pending a review for their re-allocation.

 

Hamilton Pool Road is a winding stretch of two-lane blacktop that serves as the only access point to Hamilton Pool and Reimers Ranch parks. County officials had been planning some changes that would have straightened the road and added bike lanes.

 

The decision against the redesign came after a debate that had spread out over two weeks and had featured strong neighborhood opposition. Residents had argued that the work was a springboard for development in the area. Travis County Public Works Director Steve Manilla countered that the planned upgrades were intended only as safety enhancements.

 

Ultimately, the commissioners sided with residents. Their unanimous vote (4-0, with Pct. 4 Commissioner Margaret Gomez still sidelined with health issues) seems to suggest that other county infrastructure projects presented a more pressing need.

 

“At the time that the 2005 bond package was passed no one knew the economy was going to head for the turn it did; no one knew that LCRA was going to get out of the wholesale water business,” said Huber. “A lot of those pieces of this bond package were designed to help what was perceived as desired growth (in southwest Austin). But with the economy changing and needs changing … it’s become so important that we really exercise fiscal responsibility and throw our dollars towards where they really need to go first.”

 

At last week’s meeting, Huber had requested a short delay in voting on the matter to consult with her constituents. This time, opponents presented a scaled-down version of their case. In it they collectively hit on familiar key points: A lack of access to water renders further development of the area unwise; there was a lack of specifics about the project and phrasing in the plan that could have allowed for expansion of the road to four lanes; more development would ruin the bucolic Hamilton Pool experience.

 

This time, their chorus of “stops” was met with a “go” from local rancher Charles Harrison. “The real truth is that this road goes directly to two of Travis County’s prime parks, and it’s a shame to have a dangerous stretch … (where) Travis County residents can get hurt.”

 

Harrison’s argument was somewhat defused by Huber when she asked him if he “had … entertained ideas of developing (his) ranch.” Though Harrison insisted that he wouldn’t need any of the road upgrades in question in order to press forward with any such project, Huber’s point lingered.

 

But the most interesting portion of the morning’s testimony may have belonged to Tom Wald, the executive director of the League of Bicycling Voters. Wald was caught between arguing for the safety benefits of added bike lanes and the environmental concerns of exploding development. Huber eventually let him off the hook by suggesting that there might not be biking amenities along Hamilton Pool Road in the near future. Still, for a moment, Wald was mired in an internal conflict that will continue to play out as Austin and Travis County wrestle with the issue of growth.

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