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Austin explores options for new pedestrian bridge over Lady Bird Lake

Tuesday, November 20, 2018 by Mose Buchele, KUT

There are enjoyable ways to walk or bike across Lady Bird Lake, but the Pleasant Valley Bridge is not one of them. A narrow sidewalk, a chain-link fence and low guardrails are all features that make the East Austin crossing unsafe.

For years, the city has floated ideas to improve the crossing, with no results. Now, an effort is underway that may eventually lead to a whole new pedestrian bridge.

The initiative was kicked off last week at a public meeting at Fiesta Gardens, where the Transportation Department asked for input on potential new crossings. There were poster boards for residents to write down ideas and maps to draw their preferred locations.

“We’re trying to understand what alignments we should study and how people need to move, so we’re asking … if you have a dream alignment, what would it be?” said Nathan Wilkes, the transportation planner in charge of the project. “It’s important to get this right, and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We’re not going to build a bridge after we build a bridge.”

While attendees were asked to let their dreams run wild, some options seemed more likely than others.

One suggestion was a bridge some distance from the current crossing at Pleasant Valley Road, running from the Peace Point peninsula on the south shore – near the new Oracle campus – across the lake to Festival Beach on the north side.

Another possibility was putting a bridge just up- or downstream from Pleasant Valley Road.

“Widening the existing bridge would be our fourth [option],” Wilkes said.

Bridge Over Troubled Water

Each of these options comes with challenges, which come into focus when you take a look at the structure the current bridge sits on: the Longhorn Dam.

The dam has a long history of mechanical problems. Wilkes said any new bridge on or near that structure could be complicated by work the city needs to do on the dam.

A new bridge just upstream from the dam would need to be up to 17 feet above the usual lake level to protect it from flooding.

There’s also the question of which location will get the most community support.

A few years ago, the Parks and Recreation Department floated a plan for a bridge upstream of the dam, which was similar to the Peace Point option presented at the meeting. That proposal met with resistance from neighborhood groups, which ended up backing a different plan to attach a bridge to the existing dam.

It appears some still view the proposal for a bridge near the Oracle campus as part and parcel of East Austin’s gentrification, though that didn’t come up at last week’s public meeting.

Go big or go fast

Attendees of the meeting seemed to overwhelmingly support the project, though there was disagreement over which type of bridge to build.

“I would love to see an incredibly designed, artfully minded bridge,” said Rose Warren, a transportation consultant who lives nearby.

“I would like a fast option,” said Anna Kehl, who also lives in the neighborhood, “something that could be done quickly and that could be utilized soon.”

But right now, the debate over cost is highly theoretical. The fact is, funding is still years away – if it ever appears at all.

“One thing I did find out is [there’s] no funding. … So, [we’re] moving forward!” chuckled longtime Eastside activist Gavino Fernandez.

The Transportation Department plans to review community input and hold a second public meeting. Then it will come back for a third event before it starts looking for funding.

In the meantime, the city is looking at fixes to the Longhorn Dam crossing that it could implement sometime within the next year.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photos by Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT.

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