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TxDOT to hear case for Livable Oak Hill design

Monday, November 23, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

Mediation between environmental organizations and the Texas Department of Transportation seeking a compromise in a lawsuit over the state’s controversial plans for the Oak Hill Parkway project will take place Tuesday.

The plaintiffs – Save Barton Creek Association, Save Oak Hill, Fix 290, Clean Water Action and the South Windmill Run Neighborhood Association – continue to pursue an at-grade alternative to the state’s elevated highway flyover design, which advocates see as unnecessarily destructive to the Oak Hill community and surrounding natural resources. Advocates claim the Livable Oak Hill concept would still relieve traffic with additional traffic lanes, but say the state’s plan prioritizes traffic flow coming from Dripping Springs and elsewhere over the needs and wishes of Oak Hill residents.

As the environmental groups meet with the state transportation agency this week, they are looking for “real change to (TxDOT’s) design,” not words, said Angela Richter, executive director of Save Barton Creek Association.

“The community groups we’ve been working with for years now all have the same story to tell about how their public input and plea for an at-grade parkway was never seriously considered by TxDOT,” Richter said. “With all the groups, individuals and elected officials raising their voices now, we hope that TxDOT will change course and finally listen and respond to what the community is asking for.”

A federal judge ordered the mediation attempt in September, setting a meeting deadline of Dec. 15, following the plaintiffs’ request in August for an alternative dispute resolution. United States District Judge Robert Pitman sided in favor of the environmental groups, despite TxDOT’s insistence that they had brought no new ideas to the table in their discussions.

In a recent email to the Austin Monitor, Richter rejected the state’s claim that nothing has changed since previous discussions over the project in November 2019. Among those new developments, Richter noted the project’s recent cost increase from $488 million to $678 million “while the state’s budget is facing new stressors,” changes in leadership with Tucker Ferguson joining TxDOT’s Austin District last year, and the impacts of Covid-19 on traffic patterns and local businesses.

The plaintiffs and TxDOT are instructed to file a joint status report within 30 days of the supervised mediation session. In the report, the environmental groups will specify whether they intend to continue with their lawsuit or if a compromise has been achieved.

Those supporting the Livable Oak Hill vision appreciate that the plan could save taxpayers millions of dollars, costing up to seven times less than the state’s plan. They also see the design as an opportunity to create a Williamson Creek Greenbelt Park and build a local boulevard for placemaking and a connected grid network including the parkway boulevard, local streets and trails.

In contrast, the groups view the Oak Hill Parkway as disastrous on many fronts.

“The long-term consequences of TxDOT’s design are to permanently lose the historic trees that give Oak Hill its name, lose the view of the historic Convict Hill bluffs (where primarily African American prisoners were forced to excavate stone for the capitol building), lose the opportunity for a preserved Williamson Creek with a public greenbelt, and for the historic community of Oak Hill to lose the opportunity to grow as it had envisioned in previous planning efforts (to have a community center rather than to become something that people only drive through),” Richter said.

Council members Greg Casar and Leslie Pool were the lone dissenters when City Council voted to contribute over $3 million for TxDOT’s project costs in January 2019. However, six members of Council – Pool, Casar, Alison Alter, Kathie Tovo, Paige Ellis and Ann Kitchen – have now signed on to Save Barton Creek’s adopt-a-tree program, which seeks to protect hundreds of trees considered threatened by the state’s plans. Save Barton Creek says the symbolic tree adoptions are an expression of “concern about the unnecessary devastation … of TxDOT’s overbuilt project” and of support for the “community-driven” Livable Oak Hill alternative.

“We need to be making transportation investments that build the future we want,” Casar said. “Our future is one of truly meaningful public transportation, one where we finally have a citywide mass transit system serving Austinites of all incomes and backgrounds. It doesn’t make sense to spend so much money on a large, outdated highway design through this environmentally sensitive area.”

Travis County commissioners Brigid Shea and Jeff Travillion and Precinct 3 Commissioner-elect Ann Howard have also adopted trees through the program.

“Given that the Central Texas region recently lost over $300 million for approved transportation projects, and that TxDOT is $200 million over budget on its Oak Hill highway design that is opposed by the community, will harm the environment and pollute Barton Springs. I urge TxDOT to adopt the community-driven design and use the millions that would be saved for other needed transportation projects in our region,” Shea said.

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