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Neighborhood activist criticized plan for I-35 and 51st Street interchange

Wednesday, September 15, 2010 by Michael Kanin

Some neighborhood opposition has emerged to the proposed road improvements at the intersection of I-35 and 51st Street. In an open letter that was published in the Windsor Park newsletter, longtime transportation activist Margaret Dahl voiced her objections to the project, which would be funded through the November 2010 bond election.


Both the head of the Windsor Park Transportation Committee and officials from Austin‘s Department of Transportation maintain that, if completed, the work will alleviate congestion problems along 51st Street. Dahl would rather use the $2.3 million dollars for sidewalks in the Windsor Park area.


Currently, plans for the intersection call for the reopening of an existing but shuttered ramp that will direct traffic southbound on to I-35. Officials will leave the turn lane that exists now at a light that leads cars to the southbound frontage road.


Northbound changes will feature a direct link from the I-35 northbound frontage road to Cameron Road. The so-called “jughandle” that currently leads traffic to 51st Street via the Mueller Development will not be closed.


Officials have indicated that they will take bicycle access to 51st Street on Cameron Road into account with their designs. Neighborhood bicyclists now use another blocked off ramp to make that turn.


In her letter, Dahl questioned whether, “in the scope of things…this ramp (is) really that urgent. I would hope that the neighborhood would oppose this plan and the $2.3 million expenditure,” she wrote.


There, she also cited her transportation experience. “I was concerned with and very active with transportation issues in the ’70s,” she added. Among other roles, she noted that she came up with the idea for the city’s Urban Transportation Commission.


Dahl told In Fact Daily that the potential convenience of the new configuration wasn’t worth the broader cost. “This culture has begun to confuse convenience with quality of life,” she said. “If we are visionary people and want to do something about the future we seriously need to think about what we can give up.”


As for the sidewalk problem, she cited a talk given by a visiting transportation expert: “A good neighborhood is where a kid can walk by himself and buy a Popsicle, and you can’t do that in this neighborhood.”


Dahl said she wasn’t aware of the public input process that the city’s Transportation Department had used to vet 2010 bond projects. “Talk about a gap,” she said, using the department’s term for various transportation shortcomings, “(We have) a gap in terms of the public discourse.”


Stafford Gunning, who chairs the Windsor Park Transportation Committee, said that Dahl hadn’t offered a concrete suggestion in her letter. “I think she has some good points and some real big issues with I-35 but there wasn’t necessarily a solution there,” he said. “What TxDOT and the city are working on here is a fix to a difficult intersection.”


“There’s an opportunity there to reduce congestion and reduce delay for the folks traveling through that intersection,” said Gordon Derr, the city’s assistant director of Transportation Planning. “That is why it was picked as a project to move forward with.”


Gunning said that the neighborhood was told that the jughandle would be a temporary solution, pending a broader overhaul of I-35. TxDOT has been working with the neighborhood for some time to improve the situation.


That fact may have helped the effort to be included in the 2010 bond package. When it was first unveiled, the draft list of would-be projects did not include the I-35 and 51st Street intersection. Indeed, the potential work ranked 203 on a scored list of 442 potential candidates for the 2010 election. None of the other projects that made that final list ranked lower than 45.


That TxDOT offered to chip in for engineering and other services and the project was what Austin‘s Transportation Department termed viable contributed to it making the cut.


“I think TxDOT and the city and how they’ve responded to the issues we’ve brought up has been a positive,” says Gunning. “The neighborhood is excited about it.”

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