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Federal judge orders mediation over TxDOT’s Oak Hill Parkway project

Thursday, September 24, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

On Aug. 30, United States District Judge Robert Pitman signed an order granting the wish of Save Barton Creek Association, Save Oak Hill and affiliated groups to enter supervised mediation with the Texas Department of Transportation over its plans for the Oak Hill Parkway. Despite TxDOT’s objection that the groups “lack new ideas for discussion,” those pushing an alternative vision for Oak Hill claim the mediation could help make progress on their Livable Oak Hill vision, an alternative to TxDOT’s plan.

“We’ve been asking for a better project for years,” said Carol Cespedes, a resident of Oak Hill. “Given the severe financial stresses to our state’s budget due to Covid-19 and the closing of businesses at the Oak Hill bluff, we are hopeful that TxDOT will be open to changes that can speed up construction and minimize harm to the Oak Hill community and local environment.”

Save Barton Creek, Save Oak Hill and Fix 290 were among the five groups that filed lawsuits against the Texas Department of Transportation last year in response to plans to build a 12-lane highway through Oak Hill at the intersection of U.S. Highway 290 and State Highway 71. They argue that the Oak Hill Parkway vision, featuring an overpass over William Cannon Drive and new flyover lanes at the intersection known as the Y, would increase climate and noise pollution while permanently separating Oak Hill residents from green spaces, local businesses and historic sites. At the same time, proponents of the Livable Oak Hill plan predict TxDOT’s project could ultimately increase traffic congestion by promoting further dependence on the automobile and inducing new demand for car trips.

The Livable Oak Hill alternative features a ground-level parkway and an improved street grid to connect to local businesses and a restored historic town center. The parkway would also include bike and pedestrian trails and access to the planned MetroRapid line connecting the Burnet Road corridor with Oak Hill included in the initial investment for Project Connect on the November ballot.

In January 2019, Council Member Paige Ellis of Oak Hill’s District 8 voted in favor of allocating over $3.3 million to the TxDOT project for right-of-way purchases and utility relocations. At the time, Ellis thanked the environmental community for its efforts ensuring the “highest levels of environmental protection” while noting the project’s location in a “very difficult area of town to try to find the perfect solution.”

The plaintiffs – Save Barton Creek Association, Save Oak Hill, Fix 290, Clean Water Action and the South Windmill Run Neighborhood Association – filed a request for an alternative dispute resolution referral on Aug. 13, stating that the long-lasting disagreements can be more or less resolved through mediation. TxDOT resisted the request on the grounds that it has already met several times with the group representatives. However, Pitman sided with the plaintiffs, noting that the past discussions were not attempted with the assistance of third-party mediation.

In response to the judge’s ruling, Ellis told the Austin Monitor on Wednesday she’s “hopeful that through mediation they will come to mutual acceptance for a plan that is considerate of environmental protection and alleviates the traffic congestion that pollutes our air and water.”

In light of economic constraints and business closures resulting from the pandemic, the Save Barton Creek Association said it’s a good time to revisit plans for a project with a price tag that has recently increased from $488 million to $678 million. In particular, the group took aim at the project’s six access lanes that were emphasized to provide easy access to businesses that have recently closed. With those businesses closed, Save Barton Creek said the parkway concept is “an even easier choice.”

TxDOT is ordered to meet with the plaintiff groups by Dec. 15 to negotiate a compromise. Both sides are instructed to file a joint status report within 30 days of the meeting and notify the court of any plans to continue the lawsuit.

In the meantime, Save Barton Creek has launched an adopt-a-tree program allowing residents and businesses to adopt one of the roughly 300 trees that would be removed for the TxDOT project. The group says the tree adopters will signal their support for the Livable Oak Hill plan that could save many of those trees as well as Williamson Creek.

Rendering courtesy of TxDOT.

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