Tuesday, July 8, 2014 by Jenny Blair

Fix 290 calls CTRMA, TxDOT evaluation of Oak Hill Y plan ‘biased’

A representative of an Oak Hill community group is calling the criteria used to evaluate the Oak Hill Parkway Project – designed to improve the junction of SH 71 and US 290 – “subjective and biased.” Most Austinites know the area as the Oak Hill Y, an intersection with a long and tortured history of failed plans designed to resolve its daily traffic snarls.

The plan, a cooperative effort that includes the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority and the Texas Department of Transportation, announced last month that it would explore two potential fixes for the road other than the plan put forward by the group Fix 290. Called Concepts A and C, both feature what would be controlled-access highways with frontage roads. One version would depress some connecting lanes, while the other would elevate those connectors with a flyover. New lanes are likely to involve tolls, according to TxDOT representative Kelli Reyna.

Engineer Bruce Melton with Fix 290 told the Monitor that the interagency team assigned to vet the process looked at a version of Fix 290’s plans that made it seem less viable by subtracting two design elements included in their proposal.

Fix 290 representatives argue that their pitch would be cheaper, faster to build, and less environmentally harmful than the leading alternatives, as well as offering adequate emergency access. However, after comparing a version of their design, called Concept F, to other options, the project team recommended not pursuing it.

Still, Melton says, Concept F has more exit ramps than do the team’s preferred A and C concepts. Melton also criticized the project team for not considering flyover noise, and added that Concepts A and C could harm Williamson Creek. The creek runs alongside the project area, just north of the junction between the two highways.

Estimated construction and right of way costs are $303.8 million for Concept A, $314.6 million for Concept C, and $255.1 million for Concept F, which lacks frontage roads.

City, state, federal and neighborhood groups have been searching for a solution to the traffic congestion caused by the Oak Hill Y for at least three decades. Over the years, a variety of plans have been proposed, debated, shot down, accepted or simply took so long for the parties to agree that funding ended up going to a different project. For example, the Parkway Project currently on the table had its beginnings in 1988.

Melton laid out his concerns in a document he posted to the Oak Hill website and delivered to several Austin City Council members.

According to TxDOT’s Reyna, the project team is preparing a detailed response to Melton’s and other public comments, including an explanation of their judgment about emergency access. Meanwhile, she noted that the team is doing all it can to not disturb Williamson Creek in any way.

As for noise, Oak Hill Parkway project manager James Williams says that a judgment in that direction depends on finer details of a plan. Williams said the team would consider noise concerns later, as part of its final environmental impact statement.

According to the project website, some 60,000 cars and trucks negotiate the ‘Y’ daily. TxDOT estimates that drivers spend 500,000 hours per year stuck in traffic on US 290.

TxDOT is already working to build continuous-flow intersections in an effort to improve traffic flow temporarily. The Oak Hill Parkway Project is intended to keep up with future traffic projections.

For local residents and businesses as well as stuck commuters, the stakes are high. Flyovers and toll lanes could discourage drivers from visiting local businesses, and frontage roads may get choked with traffic trying to avoid tolls, according to Melton.

“We are concerned that the neighborhood will not have use of the improvements,” said Fix 290 representative Carol Cespedes. “With tolling, traffic is going to be forced onto the access roads…We’re pretty much going to be closed out of the benefits of having this built.”

Reyna noted that adding new tolled lanes would not mean removing parallel untolled lanes.

“You’ll always have a free alternative,” she said.

Despite it all, TxDOT Austin region environmental supervisor Mike Walker, suggests that concept ‘F’ may not be dead yet.

“From an environmental point of view, all concepts are still on the table, every single one, until we get an approved environmental document from the Federal Highway Administration,” Walker said.

The team is currently preparing that document to send to the Federal Highway Administration for review. Public meetings will resume in the fall.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

CTRMA: The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority. A governmental agency created, according to its web site, in 2002 to "improve the transportation system in Williamson and Travis counties." The site also notes that the agency's "mission is to implement innovative, multi-modal transportation solutions that reduce congestion and create transportation choices that enhance quality of life and economic vitality." In addition to other responsibilities, the agency oversees a set of toll roads in the region.

The 'Y' at Oak Hill

TxDOT: The transportation agency for the State of Texas.

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