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Planning Commission hears about 30-mile loop of urban trails

Friday, July 27, 2018 by Jack Craver

City transportation officials have a grand vision to dramatically expand the Shoal Creek Trail and eventually connect it to a 30-mile loop of trails around the northern half of the city.

But it’s anybody’s guess when that vision will be realized, if ever.

In a presentation to the Planning Commission Tuesday night, Janae Spence of the Public Works Department and Joanna Wolaver of the nonprofit Shoal Creek Conservancy outlined plans to extend the Shoal Creek Trail all the way from 38th Street to the Northern Walnut Creek Trail, which currently runs between MoPac Expressway South and Walnut Creek Metropolitan Park. The dream is to eventually link that trail up to the Southern Walnut Creek Trail, which currently runs between Govalle Park and Johnny Morris Road.

The presentation was generally received positively by commissioners, although there was some skepticism voiced about the way the project will be completed.

The good news is that there are a few key projects that seem likely to materialize in the next couple of years. Notably, the plan to create a two-way protected bike lane on 4.5 miles of Shoal Creek Boulevard between 38th Street and Foster Lane is only projected to cost $1.4 million. Spence said that the city will do community outreach on the first project this fall and hopes to get the project underway next year.

Commissioner Todd Shaw, who said he bikes on Shoal Creek Boulevard, acknowledged that the status quo, which includes parked cars on both sides of the street, lends itself to dangerous interaction between cars and bikes. He nevertheless wondered why the city is doing the two-way lane on one side of the road instead of lanes on both sides.

“In looking at the space and getting feedback from the public, people wanted to keep parking on at least one side of the street,” said Spence.

There are two other “priority projects” that are also relatively cheap. There’s $350,000 for “wayfinding,” a fancy word for signs, painted arrows and other things that help people figure out where they’re going. Then there’s $475,000 to put in place safer crossings at some of the points where the trail meets the street, including at West 34th Street and West 38th Street.

Commissioner Karen McGraw suggested that the city might be getting distracted on bells and whistles.

“There’s a little bit of excessive work going on with some streets where I live. There’s a lot of new striping and arrows and buttons and stuff to tell us where to drive,” said McGraw.

McGraw also stressed the sensitivity of the creek area and said she would like to make sure “if it doesn’t need to be torn up (for bike infrastructure), that we don’t do that.”

“I think you really should engage the stakeholders and really get resolution on things and be really clear about what you’re doing environmentally before you worry about wayfinding signs,” she said.

As for more ambitious renovations and extensions of the trail, it’s not clear when and if they’ll get started.

For instance, the creation of a pedestrian and bicycle underpass at the intersection of Shoal Creek and West Third Street and the renovation of the historic wooden trestle bridge that bikers and pedestrians currently use to cross the creek, turning it into a “scenic overlook/plaza.” The project also includes the creation of another plaza west of the creek on Third Street, south of the Independent condominiums. That is projected to cost roughly $6 million.

Finally, the fifth project is an estimated $2.25 million for “critical improvements between West Fifth Street and the trail connection north of West Sixth Street,” including widening the trail and landscape changes aimed at protecting the creek itself.

Those last two projects, however, remain aspirational. There is no funding available for them at this time.

The same is true of most of the rest of the trail, whose total cost is currently estimated at $66 million. However, assessing the price of an urban trail is notoriously difficult, particularly when it’s running alongside an environmentally sensitive creek.

For instance, the Transportation Department originally allocated funds in the 2016 mobility bond to begin design on a series of improvements on the trail between Fifth and 15th streets. However, the department postponed the project after conducting a preliminary engineering report, which found that construction would cost $27 million, far more than transportation officials expected.

“I don’t think my predecessors had a solid anticipated cost since this is such a difficult area to work in,” said Spence in an email to the Austin Monitor. “That was one of the reasons the (preliminary engineering report) was so important to get done, to give us an idea of the magnitude of the project.”

Commissioner Greg Anderson didn’t dwell on those challenges, calling the trail plan “amazing.”

“I’m sometimes mortified to think about the sedentary lifestyle that so many Austinites are leading, just being stuck in traffic,” he said. “And the idea of more green spaces offering safe connectivity and active transportation options – it makes me very, very excited.”

This story has been corrected. An earlier version of the story misidentified Janae Spence as an employee of the Transportation Department

Photo by Larry D. Moore [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], from Wikimedia Commons. Map from the Shoal Creek Trail: Vision to Action Plan.

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