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Town hall shows ‘Y’ transportation solution elusive as ever

Wednesday, November 21, 2012 by Kimberly Reeves

When it comes to fixing the “Y,” the two sides seem just as entrenched as ever on what needs to be done to get traffic moving on Austin’s southwest side.

 

At a town hall meeting last Thursday to kick off a new environmental impact study for improvements at the intersection of U.S. 290 and SH 71, resident Becki Halpin said she felt some optimism for a kinder, gentler “Y,” one that environmentally conscious residents could embrace.

 

“I think they’re looking at a smaller footprint,” said Halpin, a member of the Oak Hill neighborhood contact team. “The size of the footprint they were considering would have obliterated the area, just on the height alone. Hopefully they’ve come to understand they can get people through the ‘Y’ in a timely manner with something smaller than the original project.”

 

Many ideas have been floated about the “Y,” including the idea that it should be an above-ground flyover and an at-grade parkway. Anything on the table right now is a proposal. The Texas Department of Transportation says they are starting from scratch.

 

Halpin’s neighbor Frannie Laquitara, sitting across from her and filling out a comment sheet, couldn’t help but say that Halpin was wrong and that the goal should be to fix the “Y” properly, and fix it now.

 

“I’ve been waiting for this for 15 years,” Laquitara said. “I live on (Highway) 290 just on the other side of the ‘Y’ and I never go to the H-E-B in Oak Hill. I’d rather go around and up Escarpment instead. When I go to Freescale in the morning, I take the back road because I don’t want to deal with the ‘Y.’ There’s nothing at the ‘Y’ because nobody wants to drive there.”

 

Laquitara is frustrated, convinced too many of her neighbors are retirees who never have to face the rush-hour trek. She looks at the recent improvements elsewhere on Highway 71 and sees possibilities for similar upgrades to the “Y.” Halpin does, too, but she just sees things much smaller.

 

“I’m still hopeful it’s going to work out,” Halpin said. “I’m hopeful we can build the road and provide access to the businesses, and everybody will be happy.”

 

James Williams of TxDOT and Shirley Nichols of HDR Engineering entered the fray last Thursday, hoping to find the right solution to please everyone. This is a project dogged by disagreements for decades, not to mention vanishing funding. The first environmental impact study, for a much broader area, was completed in 1988.

 

TxDOT brushed it off about six years ago, with then-District Engineer Bob Daigh trying to mediate some type of compromise between the dueling Fix290 and Save290 groups. The possibility of tolls on the project was bitterly opposed.

 

Now TxDOT is trying again, narrowing the scope of its environmental impact study and attempting to come up with a smarter solution. However, funding for the project is still in question. That will come later.

 

“We’re really starting over the whole process,” TxDOT project manager Williams said. “There have been a lot of meetings. We’re not discounting that by any means. A lot of people have put in a lot of work, but we’re looking for fresh ideas, new perspectives. We’re not married to any plan.”

 

Williams and Nichols are doing a lot of listening. At the meeting, they got to hear from the usual slew of locals: those who want to avoid tolls at all costs; those who are looking for good access to local businesses; those who are just ready to travel to and from Austin during rush hour; and those want to see Oak Hill revived as either a bedroom community or a major town center.

 

“We’re really just trying to listen,” Williams said. “How does the adjacent area develop in Oak Hill and beyond? Is it a bedroom community or a center for commerce as a town square? Is Oak Hill a terminus for a rail or bus line? If so, we really have to try to have a plan for that.”

 

The old project never would have worked with transit, Williams said. The new project could incorporate the idea of Oak Hill as a regional transit hub, even if the option is rapid bus and not commuter rail. Oak Hill’s park-and-ride lot gets plenty of traffic, Williams points out.

 

Nichols said the environmental impact study could take two to four years. That range of time is in the picture because no one is quite sure how long it’s going to take to get factions in the community on the same page, something that will be required for Federal Highway Administration approval.

 

The next round of public meetings is scheduled for February or March. Nichols expects to be able to provide attendees with broad options and preferences, culled from those who participate in the current round of feedback.

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