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Monday, August 1, 2016 by Cate Malek
Parks and Rec Board questions repairs that could add to downtown gridlock
A routine park repair has triggered pent-up frustration over Austin’s infamously congested downtown traffic.
At its meeting on July 26, members of the Parks and Recreation Board recommended a repair project that will force the closure of one lane of Cesar Chavez Street from West Avenue to San Antonio Street for the month of August. The project was approved 6-1, with Board Member Pat Wimberly dissenting. Board members Michael Casias, Rick Cofer, Mark Vane and Alison Alter were absent.
Wimberly strongly objected to a project that would block traffic in yet another sector of downtown when traffic already renders the roads nearly impassable during rush hour. “The frustration that many city of Austin voters have is they can’t get through downtown,” Wimberly said. “It took me 45 minutes to drive here tonight, and that’s 1.1 miles. We can’t get anywhere.”
The construction project, which begins Aug. 1, will repair areas of the Shoal Creek peninsula damaged by the Memorial Day flood in 2015. The project will close down the Lady Bird Lake Trail, and pedestrians and bicyclists will be diverted onto the blocked lane of Cesar Chavez Street during weekdays. The trail will be open again on weekends. The project will also close down a nearby parking lot.
But Wimberly’s frustration sparked a discussion over how the city can better coordinate street closures to prevent severe gridlock. Other participants admitted they had also spent 45 minutes fighting through downtown traffic to get to the meeting.
“My sole objection to this is it’s yet another road closure rushed through the committee at the last point because it needs to get an endorsement now,” Wimberly said.
The Parks and Recreation Board doesn’t actually have authority over how traffic is managed downtown. Its recommendation was simply to allow closure of the park and trail while repairs are going on. Members of the board also wanted to balance the needs of commuters with the needs of trail users.
“There are also thousands of people who use our trail,” said Board Member Richard DePalma. “Some people use it as a form of mobility, not just recreation.”
There is another possible route for trail traffic, over a nearby pedestrian bridge, but the city’s right-of-way management department determined it to be safer to close down Cesar Chavez Street.
“In the opinion of right-of-way management, there were no other options,” said Charles Kaough, an engineer in the Watershed Protection Department. “It was for the safety of the pedestrians.”
The repairs are needed to address the effects of severe flooding that happened over one year ago. The peninsula was damaged when water overflowed out of Shoal Creek by more than 5 feet and destroyed erosion controls, vegetation and sidewalks. The project would have cost just over $200,000 if the city had hired a contractor to do it, but the work will be carried out by city crews.
The city delayed the repairs until August because they fit within the city’s schedule for construction projects, there are fewer people using the trail because of the heat and there are fewer people on the roads, said Kaough.
The Parks and Recreation Board ultimately agreed to take advantage of the good timing to get the project completed, although it plans to discuss how to improve traffic congestion at a later date.
“I support going forward so we can use this massive trail system that thousands of people use every day in the city of Austin,” DePalma said.
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Key Players & Topics In This Article
Parks and Recreation Board: The city’s Parks and Recreation Board members deal with the acquisition, development, improvement, and maintenance of Austin’s parks and playgrounds.
Watershed Protection Department: The city's Watershed Protection Department works to reduce the impact of floods, erosion and water pollution in the city. The department is mostly funded by the city's drainage fee.