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City pulls RFQ to replace Barton Springs Bridge after public outcry

Wednesday, May 7, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

Plans to replace the Barton Springs Bridge at the entrance to Zilker Park are already being reworked, with staff pulling back its original Request for Qualifications in light of numerous concerns expressed by the public.


Currently, plans for replacing the bridge are in the early stages, but language in the Public Works Department’s RFQ already has citizens and preservationists on edge. (See Austin Monitor, April 24)


As promised, the Council Comprehensive Planning and Transportation Committee took on the Barton Springs Bridge project at its Monday afternoon meeting. Director of Public Works Howard Lazarus stressed that the RFQ had been pulled back in order to be more sensitive to concerns that had reached his office.


“Some of the concerns are that the RFQ currently talks only about replacement. So we wanted to ensure that rehabilitation and repair options are also clearly called out as things that need to be considered,” said Lazarus. “(We) also called out the cultural aspects, including the need for review from a historical perspective.”


Lazarus said that the city would address concerns that have come up since word of the Request for Qualifications hit the streets. He said that in addition to the RFQ, the city would engage a second firm to provide a peer review process.


Linda Patterson, who works for the Texas Historical Commission, said that her office would be reviewing the project under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act and the State Antiquities Code. She said that she would be making sure the new RFQ identified the bridge as listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and would require compliance with those laws.


Lazarus also offered to report back to City Council after the preliminary engineering reports are conducted as “an added measure of comfort.”


Council Member Laura Morrison remained skeptical of the process.


“I don’t know that we’ve set our goals for our intersection yet. How does somebody know how to propose a design without knowing what the goals of the intersection are?” asked Morrison. “I’m just confused about how we can do it without having a conversation with Transportation, you all, and people that have worked on that area for years.”


Lazarus said that there was a community outreach and involvement component that could be written into the process. He also reminded Morrison that City Council would need to authorize detailed design work, which would offer an additional protection.


Some stakeholder concerns were brought forward at the meeting.


“I know this bridge intimately; it’s my friend,” said David King. “To me, it’s more than just a bridge. It’s more than just moving people and traffic back and forth. I’m hopeful that we can preserve that beauty that it has and that character that it has.”


King also asked the city to step back and think about whether making Barton Springs Road more efficient was even a good idea.


“My concern is that the improvements might just encourage faster traffic flow through the park,” said King. “I hope that we can find a way to minimize that potential side effect.”


The Barton Springs Bridge was constructed in 1925. Lazarus explained that, while its current condition was “fair,” it would require substantial rehabilitation in the near future. Moreover, he said, the bridge is “functionally obsolete and is a traffic bottleneck,” and sidewalks and retaining walls needed attention.


The project will also encompass the Emmett Shelton Bridge, which connects Red Bud Trail with Lake Austin Boulevard. Lazarus explained that bridge is at the end of its useful life, despite several improvements since it was built in 1948. Money for its repair comes from the 2012 bond, which identified $3 million in design funds for the project.


Lazarus explained that both the Emmett Shelton Bridge and the Barton Springs Bridge were identified on a list given to the 2012 Bond Election Advisory Task Force. That list of proposed bridge replacements and structural improvements estimated construction costs of more than $15 million  for the Emmett Shelton Bridge and $4 million for the Barton Springs Bridge.


Funding for the design of both projects will come out of that bond but neither project has funding for construction.


Morrison expressed surprise that there was that much flexibility in bond spending. Lazarus assured her there was.


“We know that staff puts together an annual, detailed plan of how to achieve the bond goals… Things change around, I’m just surprised to see that we’d be able to do another big project, like with the Barton Springs Bridge, in the bond when it never rose to the top of discussing it,” said Morrison.

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