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West End group wants traffic to run slower through its business district

Tuesday, August 31, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

The West End Austin Alliance, like the Texas Department of Transportation, is grappling with how to get traffic into and out of downtown more efficiently.


Last night, TxDOT began lane reconfigurations to add more capacity to the traffic bottleneck going north into downtown in the mornings and evenings. It’s a small part of an overall $3.5 million high occupancy vehicle lane project with broader implications for improving traffic movement going south into downtown.


With traffic already snarled at the intersections of Lamar Boulevard at Fifth and Sixth streets, the members of the West End Austin Alliance are torn. Do they want the new HOV lane, coming from the north into downtown, to dump even more traffic on intersections that already are crawling at a slow pace?


The general consensus at the last WEAA meeting was “no.” Merchants around the two key intersections want traffic to slow, but they don’t want too much traffic. Moving traffic through the area at a high speed – which would be the likely result of a new exit ramp off of Fifth or Sixth streets – is not the goal.


In other words, the merchants of the West End don’t want to be a pass through for commuters on the way into downtown. Instead, they’d like to use another artery into downtown – namely Cesar Chavez Boulevard – and attempt to prioritize cross traffic and pedestrian access around Lamar at Sixth.


“There is no reason why traffic should move any faster from Lamar to MoPac than it moves from Congress to Lamar,” said organizer Perry Lorenz. “We need traffic calming and pedestrian connectivity.”


This route – the main route – into downtown has been an open question for years. WEAA’s preference would be to decide, once and for all, that Cesar Chavez Boulevard should be the main gateway into downtown for commuters, since Enfield Road already has been pulled off the table. Go any further north, Lorenz joked, and the only other real option would be Koenig Lane.


Support was not universal at the most recent WEAA meeting. Cesar Chavez, like the Fifth and Sixth street arteries, is going to have significant cross-traffic as the Seaholm property is developed along Lake Bird Lake.


Developers of the Seaholm project, represented by Danny Roth of Southwest Strategies Group, also want slower traffic past their development. So the alliance, which is drafting a letter, intends to tweak language in order to encourage whatever expansion or ramp that might be built to hit ground level well before the Seaholm project, so that potential traffic can access the office space and amenities, as well as the city’s new central library, on the property.


“It’s our hope that we have nice slow controlled traffic, and anything that says we’re going to have a raceway down Cesar Chavez would be something we would oppose,” Roth said. “In our plan with the city, there’s a light not only at West Avenue but also at the new Seaholm Drive, so any type of pushing traffic past our property would be against our efforts.


The Gables is in a unique position, as the one landowner with properties on both corridors: an apartment complex on Fifth Street and one at the Seaholm project. Already, a light has been put in at Fifth Street and Campbell to accommodate foot traffic. The apartment developer would support the Cesar Chavez access but only to the point that Roth suggested, that it reach grade before Seaholm.


Ultimately, a new expanded artery onto Cesar Chavez could take pressure off the Fifth and Sixth street corridors and provide more options for traffic calming and foot traffic to shop at local businesses, Lorenz said.


A letter conveying the preferences of WEAA and the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association is being drafted for delivery to Council.

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