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New AISD group to tackle Austin High traffic

Wednesday, May 6, 2015 by Courtney Griffin

This summer, a new interlocal group will propose a solution to address the traffic problems that are expected to slam Austin High School in coming years.

At the Austin Independent School District’s Board Dialogue meeting, trustees directed administration to create a working group to address the school’s looming traffic issues. The working group will consist of up to two members each from AISD administration, City of Austin staff, Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority staff and Old West Austin Neighborhood Association members.

“There’s a lot of different entities interested in this conversation, but we wanted the core group to be AISD leadership and the city, and then bring in the players as needed,” District 5 Board Member Amber Elenz said Monday.

The group will tackle a potential traffic convergence area near Austin High School and Cesar Chavez Street caused by proposed roadway improvement projects.

The possible traffic knot is a two-part concern. Austin High parents and staff are worried that the proposed MoPac South Improvement Project and the Pressler Street Extension Project will cause extreme logjams and student safety issues because both empty into Austin High’s driveway.

“South MoPac is not quite as immediate, because that’s still at the design phase,” Elenz said. She explained that residents have not had time to look at the other proposal yet. “That hasn’t quite stressed out the community as much as the Pressler initially has.”

Originally slated for a city vote in June 2014, the Pressler project would join Pressler Street with Reserve Road, creating a back entrance to Austin High School through Lamar Beach. It would also add a traffic circle at the intersection of Reserve Road and the westbound Cesar Chavez Loop, commonly used as an exit to the school. Pressler Street currently dead-ends just past Fifth Street near the train tracks.

“It’s also the access road to Cesar Chavez and ultimately MoPac,” Elenz said. “So, when you add more traffic into that area, you directly impact Austin High. You impact the drivers who are driving on the loop, and you actually impact the students using the (school’s sports) fields for lacrosse and softball, (because) they’re walking back and forth. That’s the main student safety issue.”

Elenz added that young children use the nearby West Austin Youth Association’s popular T-ball fields. The additional pedestrian and bike lanes that the project will bring in further safety concerns.

Parents are also worried about opening up access to the train tracks. Crockett High School currently has an issue with student suicide on its nearby tracks, Elenz said.

In recent weeks, the City of Austin has showed its willingness to sit down and talk about mutually beneficial solutions, Elenz told the Austin Monitor. The original June 2014 decision was delayed after residents asked for a more extensive traffic study, which is due later this month.

Expanding the conversation, District 6 Board Member Paul Saldaña reminded the board that the MoPac portion of the traffic issue was equally pressing.

On Monday the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization will vote on its 2040 plan, which includes the tolled expressways that would affect Austin High, Saldaña said.

Save Our Springs Executive Director Bill Bunch said at the meeting that the project could potentially cut into Austin High’s right of way and the surrounding parks as increased traffic snakes into the downtown area, which might result in the loss of ballfields to roadways.

Lynda Rife, public involvement consultant for CTRMA, said the agency has not purchased any park right of way. If officials decide on the express lane fly-in, however, they would need to take the hill behind Austin High, she said.

“I’m looking at this issue from the perspective that it’s our responsibility to ensure that kids have a safe and healthy environment at the schools, and another part of that are safe routes to the schools,” Saldaña said. “I’m looking to see if there is any state law that speaks to … the planned highways or expansion of highways near schools.”

Citing studies showing detrimental effects of highway noise and air pollution in Houston schools, Saldaña asked if AISD would join the City of Austin and others in writing a letter to CAMPO expressing their concerns over the MoPac South Improvement Project’s potential impact on Austin High School.

Superintendent Paul Cruz said he would send the letter. The work group plans to meet at least four to six times over the summer, Elenz said.


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