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Old Enfield: Another neighborhood divided over speed humps

Friday, September 28, 2018 by Jack Craver

It’s no wonder that the Transportation Department gets a lot of grief in a city as choked by traffic as Austin.

Some of the complaints are unfounded or make demands that city transportation experts will not agree to. However, said Annick Beaudet, assistant director of the Austin Transportation Department, some of the negative feedback makes sense and leads the department to reverse a previous decision.

For instance, a number of disgruntled residents of the Old Enfield neighborhood recently convinced Transportation staff to redo a variety of traffic-calming measures that the city put in place over the past two years at a cost of roughly $318,000.

ATD has agreed to remove a recently implemented traffic circle at the intersection of Hartford and Niles roads. It will reintroduce stop signs and install asphalt speed humps (euphemistically referred to by ATD as “speed cushions”) on both sides of the intersection on Hartford. ATD similarly is calling off previous plans for a second traffic circle at Hartford and Watchhill roads. Instead, it will put in place rubber speed humps on Hartford. Stop signs will also be coming back to both intersections.

On West Lynn Street, just north of Enfield, ATD will be removing a median that it says has led to cars driving closer to the curb and cutting into space used by walkers and bikers, since there’s no sidewalk or bike lane. The city will instead put in place asphalt speed humps to slow cars down.

“I didn’t realize how many people in this neighborhood are walkers and bikers,” said Kevin Sweat, managing engineer for the Public Works Department. “We narrowed down the roadway space to slow down the vehicles, but the unintended consequence was it made it less comfortable to walkers and bikers.”

In another instance, ATD Director Robert Spillar acknowledged that curb extensions put in place on Windsor Road were “not constructed according to the design and … resulted in unexpected erosion.” This had annoyed walkers and bikers by narrowing the street. ATD is planning to deal with all of those issues by reducing the size of the curb extension and putting in place “better erosion control.”

Ironically, the devices that the department is removing due (at least partially) to objections from neighbors were originally put in place as the result of the residents’ overwhelming support. Jim Christianson, a member of the Old Enfield Homeowners Association, recalls that when ATD first met with his group in 2009, a large majority of residents supported initiating a traffic-calming plan, and in 2013, after ATD finally had funding available for the plan, a similarly large majority endorsed a more specific set of measures proposed by the city.

It was not until the summer of 2017 that the city began to make the changes that it had been discussing and planning with the neighborhood for eight years.

In an email to neighbors, Spillar said, “The City has and will continue to apologize for mistakes that were made in this years-long process, and the division that has flooded your neighborhood. That was not the intention of this project. Our focus is on providing a safety benefit to the community, and our options now are to identify a solution that works to achieve that goal for all road users.”

Christianson describes the series of events as an embarrassing waste of taxpayer dollars brought on by city government incompetence. If the city hadn’t taken forever to put in place the changes, and if it had done them right, a small contingent of disgruntled neighbors wouldn’t have been able to get them taken out.

In particular, ATD the city neglected the medians that it had put in place. They became overgrown with weeds, becoming an eyesore that homeowners in the wealthy area were particularly sensitive to.

“If a private homeowner allowed the weeds to grow to this extent, they would be fined, but I guess Transportation Department is exempt from the city rules,” said Christianson in an email.

The ugly medians emboldened a small group of neighbors who had always been against the traffic-calming measures. They raised enough of a stink over the medians that the city agreed to undo many of the traffic-calming measures. Christianson describes the outcome as the city acquiescing to the demands of a small contingent of “rich and powerful” residents.

ATD staff reject Christianson’s analysis and note that the department was not getting rid of speed mitigation devices, but simply changing them. And those changes were a result of concerns about pedestrian and biker safety, rather than pressure from residents, said ATD spokesperson Cheyenne Krause.

Earlier this year, residents of the similarly affluent Jester Estates neighborhood voiced so much outrage about rubber speed humps that ATD agreed to remove the devices after only six months. The department said that it agreed to do so in response to the residents’ campaign to reduce speeding through public awareness efforts.

Krause said that the department receives feedback from all over the city and responds to residents’ concerns.

“We’re going to listen to those concerns and determine whether those concerns are valid. We have a responsibility to not prioritize the safety of vehicles over pedestrians,” said Krause. “This is not a situation that is unique to West Austin.”

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin Transportation Department.

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