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Redbud, Barton Springs bridge fixes move ahead

Friday, May 1, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

As Public Works Department Director Howard Lazarus said at Wednesday’s City Council Mobility Committee meeting in regard to improving the Barton Springs Road and Redbud Trail bridges, “If you never get started, you’ll never get finished.” Those projects, it appears, are one step closer to getting started.

The committee recommended at that meeting that Council approve up to roughly $1.6 million in contracts for peer-reviewed engineering and design work on the aging bridges. Members peppered staff with questions, but voted on the items with little to no comment.

“The bridges are not in immediate danger of collapse, but we do anticipate they’re going to take a long time because of the environmental concerns and historic concerns, and we want to do it right and we want to do it right the first time,” Lazarus told the committee. “It’s prudent to go down this path now.”

A total of $3 million in design funding for these projects was included in the city’s 2012 transportation bond. Construction funding does not currently exist, but will likely be included in an upcoming bond election. Though construction estimates will not be determined until design is complete, Lazarus said that they would likely consist of “a large amount of money.”

Lazarus also addressed concerns voiced by residents last spring that the improvements would significantly alter the natural landscape, the bridges and nearby infrastructure. He said that the contracts require their respective consultants to provide residents with various alternatives for vetting during an extensive public input process.

A pair of speakers echoed these concerns. Resident Mary Arnold railed against a previous proposal to straighten the curves in Redbud Trail and replace the bridge with one that would be 25 feet higher and cut through adjacent limestone cliffs.

Arnold referred to the bridge by its official name – Emmett Shelton Bridge – and advocated for rehabilitation of the existing bridge rather than replacing it.

Lazarus referred to the proposal Arnold cited as an “old concept.” He said the city would consider rehabilitation for both bridges and, through the stakeholder process, would have the option to eliminate certain designs, if deemed necessary. “We’ll get feedback from the community as to what the preferences are,” he said. “We’ll balance that against costs and what works.”

The public, Lazarus added, will have an opportunity to comment on the preliminary engineering reports before the process moves any further, a step that will also require Council approval. “It is not our intent to spend a lot of money going down a road that is not going to be fruitful,” he said.

Redbud Trail Bridge crosses Lady Bird Lake at Tom Miller Dam and consists of two spans on either side of Red Bud Isle. The bridge, built in 1948 and strengthened in 1998, received only a “fair” rating from inspectors in 2012.

Lazarus said the bridge is “really at the end or near the end of its useful life.” He added that it is the primary route for trucks traveling to and from the Ullrich Water Treatment Plant and waiting too long on improvements could force the city to implement load restrictions on the bridge, forcing those trucks to drive through nearby neighborhoods.

Barton Springs Road Bridge crosses Barton Creek at Zilker Park. The bridge, built in 1925 and widened in 1945, also holds a “fair” rating, though Lazarus said it would require substantial rehabilitation in the future.

“The bridge is really functionally obsolete, and it creates a traffic bottleneck,” Lazarus said, noting that the project would also address issues at the intersection of Barton Springs Road and Robert E. Lee Road. “At one point, wethey said that we wanted to turn this into a superhighway. That’s not the intent, but we do want to address traffic flow on Barton Springs Road.”

If Council moves the process forward, city staff will have to be very careful to balance mobility improvements with preservation of historical and natural features.

Leslie Valentine, who described herself as a “concerned citizen,” made the scope of the challenge clear when she compared Redbud Trail Bridge and its surroundings to one of Austin’s most famous and revered environmental assets.

“I realize that the bridge needs repair or replacement, but I implore you not to consider any design that would mar the area’s natural beauty and ruin another Austin treasure forever,” Valentine said. “To me, that would be like blasting through Mount Bonnell and building a bridge across.”

This article has been corrected.

Photo of Barton Springs Road Bridge courtesy of City of Austin Public Works Department.

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