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Council committee questions plans for Oak Hill Parkway project update

Tuesday, August 12, 2014 by Tyler Whitson

Austin City Council members questioned Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority and Texas Department of Transportation representatives last week about their decision not to advance elements of a resident-supported plan to reconstruct the congested U.S. Highway 290 and State Highway 71 intersection in Oak Hill.

The discussion took place during the regular meeting of the Council Comprehensive Planning and Transportation Committee, which included an update on the Oak Hill Parkway project, an environmental impact study launched by the Mobility Authority, TxDOT, Capital Metro, the City of Austin and Travis County in 2012.

A group of concerned Oak Hill neighborhood residents representing the Fix 290 Coalition attended the meeting to advocate for the continued consideration of Concept F in the project’s next stages for the area known as the Oak Hill “Y.”

Fix 290 members Bruce Melton told the Committee that his group began developing Concept F several years before the launch of the Oak Hill Parkway project. “We … started being concerned with how TxDOT was going to impact our neighborhood and our environment in 2005,” he said.

TxDOT presented designs that summer for the construction of a corridor at the US 290 and SH 71 intersection that sparked a concerted local response later that year, according to a timeline on the Oak Hill Parkway website.

Fix 290 passed out a proposed resolution during the meeting for the City of Austin to recommend to the Mobility Authority, TxDOT and the Federal Highway Administration that “a non-elevated and non-tolled design with minimal frontage roads be advanced as an option for full and fair consideration” in the final design phases of the Oak Hill Parkway project.

“Maybe we could have some offline discussions about whether there’s a way that we could try to at least move the conversation forward,” Council Member Laura Morrison said, citing the resolution.

In their presentation — as in a draft presented in a public meeting in June — the Mobility Authority and TxDOT recommended the advancement of only Concepts A and C to the next stage of the project. Both, described in supplemental material as a “conventional controlled-access highway with frontage roads” that may or may not be a toll road, would be compared with a “no-build alternative” moving forward.

The Oak Hill Parkway project’s official analyses estimate the construction cost of Concept A at $269 million, Concept C at $280 million and Concept F at $204 million. Melton and other Fix 290 representatives who spoke at the meeting frequently cited the significantly lower cost of Concept F as a reason to continue considering it. Morrison asked why Concept F is not being carried forward and if there is a limit on the number of plans that can be selected.

Wade Strong of the Rodriguez Transportation Group — a consultant for the Austin District of TxDOT — responded that there was no predetermined limit, but that the concept was not chosen for various reasons.

“Concept F didn’t score as well as the others in a couple of areas, including mobility and travel time,” Strong said, referring to evaluation criteria that the Oak Hill Parkway project used to evaluate the eight concepts developed across two community workshops. He stated that the “inherent nature” of Concept F was a problem, in that it does not have continuous frontage roads, like Concepts A and C.

Melton cited decreased cost and environmental impact as rationale for minimizing frontage roads. In developing Concept F, he said, Fix 290 took “pieces from four or five alternatives that are being proposed” and consolidated them. “Then we deleted about 40 percent of the frontage roads in the places they weren’t needed.”

Melton asserted that the Oak Hill Parkway project is not advancing Concept F because the evaluation criteria are problematic. “At this point they’re trying to do more of a subjective evaluation instead of on objective evaluation,” he said. “When you’re comparing a road without continuous frontage roads to one with continuous frontage roads, there’s going to be some biases.”

In the end, Mobility Authority Deputy Executive Director Mario Espinoza told the committee that the Oak Hill Parkway project plans to address these concerns. “We’re going to continue to have public meetings, as well as with the Fix 290 group,” he said. “We’re going to go back and take a look at the process, using comparisons of some of the safety and other aspects of A and C, as well as F.”

Since the Oak Hill Parkway project has not begun its next phase, there is still a possibility that it could include Concept F.

Espinoza explained that the participating organizations plan to address community concerns. “Whether we have a resolution or not,” Espinoza concluded, “it’s already in the works.”

Click here for more information about the Oak Hill Parkway project.

Click here for more information about the Fix 290 Coalition.

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