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ASMP roadway project strikes a nerve

Friday, March 1, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

The Austin Strategic Mobility Plan is already causing a stir in the community since being released Feb. 22. After a two-year process that allowed residents to comment on potential corridor projects, a handful of community members feel ignored by the final draft.

As the Transportation Department invited them to do, several city residents brought their concerns to the City Council Mobility Committee meeting Thursday afternoon. Among a variety of worries about the proposed transportation corridors’ effects on businesses, traffic and heritage trees, there was a common fear that the city is pushing projects through behind the community’s back.

One road project, in particular, caught the attention of West Austin Neighborhood Group board member and Save Muny advocate Mary Arnold. The road is a connector that would pave two general use lanes, a center turn lane, bike lanes, and sidewalks through what is now Lions Municipal Golf Course in Southwest Austin.

The golf course, which is also known as Muny and is owned by the University of Texas, is the center of ongoing debate about the value of preserving a historic golf course near the city’s urban core when the land could serve the community with housing and economic development. While the university is ready to put the land to more lucrative use, City Council has been negotiating ways to preserve the course, in part due to its history as the first Southern course to desegregate.

Arnold said the road, running northeast from Redbud Trail to Enfield Road, was “slipped in” between the public comment period and the ASMP final draft release. She said the West Austin Neighborhood Group was not consulted or notified about the project. “I’m very, very curious as to how this got in and why it was so late getting in.”

Arnold also suggested that other groups like Dove Springs Neighborhood Association may have received preferential treatment throughout the community engagement process.

“Certainly the West Austin Neighborhood Group and a whole bunch of other neighborhood groups were not that much involved as we were not part of the listed focus organizations,” she said. “So I am signed up as opposed because I don’t think this road should be in the plan.”

Transportation Department director Robert Spillar said that the project’s last-minute inclusion was not personal. He noted that the ASMP draft is “not static” and that any projects included will have to go to the public and City Council before being implemented. “Just to be transparent, we know that there are other facilities that are included in the plan where we may have received public comment that may be negative or may be positive or whatever.”

Transportation division manager Cole Kitten added that the purpose of the plan itself is to provide technical guidance regardless of the many possible political considerations. “We have to include our best technical recommendation at this time in order to make sure that we can have those negotiations in the future,” he said. “If we don’t include certain roadways or improvements in the plan right now we might miss out on that opportunity should something happen before it’s amended into the plan.”

Spillar said part of that technical expertise is a longstanding need for roads in West Austin. Because the city has avoided consideration of new roadway connections for decades, he said the ASMP provides an opportunity to include those long overdue solutions alongside the plan’s more complex projects. For example, Spillar said the city has no way to improve the area along Lake Austin Boulevard on the southern edge of Lions Municipal Golf Course without adding road connections.

The ASMP proposes that added roadways will be essential to expanding public transit into neighborhoods west of MoPac Expressway where transit ridership has historically been low.

Council Member Paige Ellis said that the public should be given better information regarding the ASMP project timeline and approval process. Before the ASMP goes to City Council on March 28, she said she “wanted to make sure there was some opportunity … to provide a little clarity on projects.”

Echoing that concern, Council Member Leslie Pool also mentioned the need to clarify for the public what the ASMP is and how community members can continue to get involved now that the final draft has been posted. She said she suspects “that folks may worry that things have concretized as far as decision making.”

Spillar stressed that now is still a great time for interested parties to offer feedback and that many of the ASMP projects were included so that the city could consider them as an option. If the final draft had only included guaranteed plans, he said, the department would have to go through an extensive amendment process for any additional desired projects.

Driving that point home, Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza said the plan is the “road version” of Imagine Austin. “There are things in Imagine Austin, including some activity centers, for example, that are not activity centers right now.” Similarly, she said, this plan represents an ideal that will have to deal with specific complications when the time comes.

For now, the community is invited to participate in any of the meetings regarding the ASMP and to attend the public hearing when the plan goes to City Hall on March 28. Spillar said the department will compile all emails received from the community for City Council to use as reference.

U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Joshua R. M. Dewberry.

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