Friday, February 1, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

City reluctantly fulfills legal obligation for Oak Hill Parkway

When the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization approved the Oak Hill Parkway Project on Jan. 14, Austin Mayor Steve Adler’s only regret was the loss of a good opportunity to use tolls to cover maintenance costs. Austin City Council members Jimmy Flannigan, Ann Kitchen and Alison Alter also contributed “ayes” at the time. So it’s no surprise that City Council chose to grant the Texas Department of Transportation’s request Thursday afternoon for $3,301,401 for right-of-way purchase and relocation of reimbursable utilities at the project’s site in Oak Hill.

The figure is 10 percent of the total cost of reimbursable utility relocation and purchase of two right-of-way agreements for the project’s individual sections. The city is required by law to contribute the 10 percent local participation but is not responsible for additional costs that may arise beyond the $3.3 million.

Because the project involves the intersection of two major highways – U.S. Highway 290 and State Highway 71 – it requires individual right-of-way agreements for both sections. The right-of-way agreements cover U.S. 290 from RM 1826 to SL 1 and SH 71 between Silvermine Drive and U.S. 290. The project features over two and a half miles of depressed highway with six main traffic lanes and another six service lanes, and an interchange elevated at 30 feet.

According to Save Our Springs Alliance environmental attorney Bobby Levinski, the project’s design is fundamentally tied to its origins as a toll project. Now that it’s no longer a toll road, Levinski said, the abundance of service lanes is entirely unnecessary. “What TxDOT does with access lanes is not proper transportation planning.”

Angela Richter, executive director of Save Barton Creek Association, said the service lanes are not only excessive, but environmentally destructive. Adding the extra lanes to the highways will result in an additional 71 acres of impervious cover in the middle of an environmentally sensitive recharge and contributing zone, she said. “We now know what type of impacts this type of project would have and yet we’re approving the same type of overbuilt project that would have been seen as state-of-the-art in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.”

As some consolation to environmentalists, the city also drafted and approved a memorandum of understanding with TxDOT agreeing to collaborate throughout the construction process and allowing provisions for the city to take additional measures regarding environmental preservation and stormwater management. Acknowledging that the city was unlikely to stop the project at this stage, several environmental advocates urged the Council members to use the memorandum to reconsider the project’s design moving forward.

Adler said the MOU represents a new era of cooperation between the city and the state that will continue well beyond the Oak Hill Parkway. “It memorializes a lot of the kinds of construction and mitigation considerations that we do here in our city, but that TxDOT would never formally recognize. This MOU that they’re entering into now just doesn’t concern this project; it becomes an umbrella agreement and then with each successive project it would be a separate addendum that gets added to it for that particular project.”

The city will authorize the $3.3 million from the 2016 Mobility Bond, which initially contained $8 million for replacement of the flood-prone Old Bee Caves Road bridge. Austin Transportation Department Director Rob Spillar said the $8 million was added to the 2016 bond when it was unclear whether TxDOT was going to go forward with the Oak Hill Parkway. Spillar said using the money for the Oak Hill Parkway ensures construction of the new bridge as well as restoration of Williamson Creek with a multi-use trail, improved connectivity to businesses and free-flowing through traffic at the intersection of highways 290 and 71.

Kitchen said that transit should also be a top priority for the project. She directed city staff to work with Capital Metro to ensure construction will not impede transit and noted the potential for a transit center and park-and-ride west of the project’s major intersection, possibly at ACC’s indefinitely closed Pinnacle campus. The campus is currently marked as the southern terminus of a potential bus rapid transit Gold Line on Capital Metro’s Project Connect vision plan.

Citing critical environmental concerns, Council Member Leslie Pool said the city’s efforts to reduce the project’s impact do not go far enough. “I cannot in good conscience vote for this funding or this plan,” she said. “The road design could have been less environmentally damaging, but that’s not what TxDOT’s doing.”

Kitchen countered that the vote is not about approval of the project, but merely a way to have influence over a project that will inevitably be built. “If it was up to me I would never build something like that in the Oak Hill Parkway area; I think it’s not progressive, it doesn’t reflect where we want to go for transit and I’m horrified about what it’s going to look like.” Nonetheless, she said, the agreement between the city and state is the only tool available.

After the vote, Richter told the Monitor that the Save Barton Creek Association was glad to see opposition on the dais and will keep working for a better project design moving forward.

The four agenda items related to the Oak Hill Parkway passed 8-2-1, with Pool and Council Member Greg Casar opposed and Flannigan absent.

Rendering courtesy of TxDOT.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

TxDOT: The transportation agency for the State of Texas.

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