Wednesday, June 12, 2013 by Charlotte Moore

Travis Commissions move forward on widening Hamilton Pool Road

On Tuesday, Travis County Commissioners unanimously agreed that road work on Hamilton Pool Road, previously put on hold, should finally get underway.

Steven Manilla of Travis County’s Transportation and Natural Resources Department asked commissioners to allow his department to proceed with a 2005 bond program project to complete the design and construction documents for safety improvements along a six-mile stretch of Hamilton Pool Road, between Ranch Road 12 and State Highway 71.

The road along this stretch is winding, hilly and scenic with vegetation on both sides of traffic butting up to the shoulder. The construction project calls for widening both lanes, adding 5-foot paved shoulders, middle turn lanes, bike lanes, signage and striping, and replacing or reinforcing the bridge at Hamilton Creek.

“It’s needed to improve sight distance,” said Manilla. “As you’re driving down the road, you’ll see vegetation growing right to the edge of the pavement. So, if you’re on a curve, you can’t see very far. You can come up on a bicyclist or other slow-moving (object) without having enough time to react safely.” Also, says Manilla, if for some reason a motorist needs to stop, there is currently no space for the driver to safely pull over and out of the line of traffic.

The Texas Department of Transportation reports that between June 10, 2012 and June 11, 2013, there have been a total of seven crashes on the span of Hamilton Pool Road in question.

Still, some area residents argue road work will ultimately lead to heavier traffic which will bring in unwanted developers who’ll change the natural appeal of the area.

“We’re trying to stop Hamilton Pool Road from ever looking like Parmer Lane,” said Hugh Winkler, who lives in the area and opposes the planned construction.

Another neighbor, Ric Sternberg, argued neighbors don’t want the improvements and that the county should leave the road alone.

“Maybe (I’m) a tree-hugging hippie not liking any kind of development,” he said. “This is country. I think if we maintain it as country it will be better for the area. (The road work) is an extreme response to a minor problem.”

The improvements the court approved are actually a compromise from an original proposal. In June 2010, strong neighborhood opposition and an amendment by then Pct. 3 Commissioner Karen Huber, who cited the economic downturn and commissioners’ fiscal responsibility as motivation, led the court in blocking plans to turn the stretch into a 4-lane road with bike lanes. Huber instructed staff to hold $922,000 in reserve for construction design or possibly for an entirely different project. The court unanimously voted 4-0 to hold off on the project.

Sternberg, who has owned land in the Hamilton Pool Road area since 1988, says the neighbors against this construction don’t have the ally they had in Huber, with Commissioner Gerald Daugherty back in the Precinct 3 spot.

“Before, we had a commissioner who cared about this area,” he said. “I believe the reason Gerald Daugherty lost the last time to Huber was because he didn’t pay enough attention to what the people out west cared about. He managed to get people who really didn’t care about the western part of his area to vote him back in. Now, the area is becoming more conservative, and that includes things like putting money into roads. Commissioner Daugherty is a roads guy. He loves concrete.”

Daugherty said the court has a duty to see the road safety improvements through with travelers taking Hamilton Pool Road to attractions like Hamilton Pool, Reimer’s Ranch Park and West Cave Preserve the county helped promote.

“Perhaps (we) shouldn’t have bought $50 million worth of park land we want people to use,” Daugherty said. “I’m very comfortable with increasing the width of the lanes now, finding the necessary spots where you can have turns, and obviously, putting something out there for cyclists because they have the right to be on the road. It needs improvement. We have bought the park land and turned the property into a destination place. For that reason, I think we need to move forward.”

And that’s exactly what Manilla says he’ll do now. The next step is to hire a project consultant which could take up to six months. The entire process – including design, organizing public meetings, making necessary adjustments, and creating construction documents – could easily lead into 2016, just in time for the next bond referendum.

“We have $900,000 to do the engineering,” Manilla said. “I could see us burning up quite a bit of that money. A ballpark guesstimate on the (total) cost of construction is probably $15 million. We’re getting ready for our next bond referendum around 2016, just in time for us to know exactly how much to ask for.”

Pct. 4 Commissioner Margaret Gómez was absent from Tuesday’s meeting.

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