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City plan to replace Barton Springs Bridge runs into complications

Thursday, April 24, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

The process is barely underway, but the city’s plan to replace the historic Barton Springs Bridge is already generating pushback from the historic preservation community.


Last week’s Public Works Request for Qualifications for a design consultant to replace the 1925 bridge at the entrance to Zilker Park, as well as the Redbud Trail Bridge near the Tom Miller Dam, is drawing fire from neighbors and preservationists alike.


The RFQ calls for a “complete replacement of the obsolete Barton Springs Road Bridge” and note that “structurally it appears to be in fair condition; however; the deck width and geometry are extremely obsolete.” It explains that the bridge is a bottleneck for improving multimodal transportation on the road, which is often congested – especially during special events.


According to the RFQ, the preliminary design concept approximately doubles the width of the bridge to accommodate two sidewalks, two bike lanes and four car lanes.


Even the request from the city notes the sensitivity of the project, both environmentally and culturally. It mentions that the bridge is surrounded by critical urban park property on all sides and crosses the most sensitive urban watershed in Austin. It also states that though the bridge isn’t officially historically registered “it is likely to be considered by some to be historically significant nonetheless.”


And they were right.


“Indeed, the Barton Creek Bridge does have a historic designation,” said Preservation Austin Executive Director Jacqui Schraad. “It’s a contributing structure to the Zilker Park National Register Historic District.


Schraad explained that, in this case, a “Section 106 Review” is required. Part of the National Preservation Act contains a provision that if the federal government takes on, funds, or permits a project that impacts historic sites, it needs to be reviewed by the appropriate state historic agency. That means that, because this project will require an Army Corps of Engineers permit, the Texas Historical Commission will have to review the project.


“We’ve put the Texas Historical Commission in touch with Public Works to let them know that they really shouldn’t proceed unless that review takes place,” said Schraad.


Public Works spokeswoman Sara Hartley assured the Austin Monitor that plans for the bridge would go through a lengthy stakeholder process and, moving forward, would go through all of the normal public processes including boards and commissions and the City Council.


“We’re not even there yet. We’re not even to a public process yet. We haven’t even begun. This is the first foot out of the door when you start a public process like this. Certainly, we’re going to consider all those things,” said Hartley. “We know that we are going to have to do a lot of community engagement when it comes to these particular projects.”


“We understand that these are not only transportation issues, but also neighborhood and potential historic issues,” said Hartley.


After corresponding with Council Member Laura Morrison’s office, Hartley said that public process is now scheduled to begin at the May 5 meeting of the Comprehensive Planning and Transportation Committee, where some of Schraad’s concerns are likely to be addressed. 


“We would never want to see any contributing structure to a National Historic District impacted without very careful consideration beforehand. And, also, we’re very concerned about the lack of public process in this,” said Schraad. “It’s one of the oldest bridges in Austin, and there’s no stakeholder input. The RFQ calls, simply, for its replacement. There hasn’t been any other consideration of alternatives.”

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