Wednesday, September 29, 2021 by Seth Smalley

Updated: Vocal Thomas Springs residents oppose expanding street

At Tuesday’s meeting of the Travis County Commissioners Court, local community members expressed their outrage over the Thomas Springs Road development specifically, the plan to significantly widen the road for the stated purpose of making room for bike lanes. The majority of local commenters, quoting everything from Thomas Paine to the neighborhood association to justify their positions, called on commissioners to vote “no” on the approval of of $217,000 to draft the redesign plans.

“I want to make sure that, if we vote for this project, that you’re still going to come back or someone’s going to come back to court, so that we can address the concerns of the community,” said County Judge Andy Brown.

It’s not the bike lanes themselves which residents oppose. Instead, as local Dave Philips points out, many residents feel the bike lanes are being used as justification to widen the road, preparing for its eventual conversion to a four-lane highway.

In a letter addressed to commissioners, Philips wrote, “What we had not considered was that transportation interests — unlike the bike and rural resident interests — were using this bond as a ploy to someday create a shortcut between highways 290 and 71 west. Ever since the intended cut-through at Southwest Parkway was scrapped, transportation interests have lusted after Thomas Springs Road as an alternative.”

Commissioner Brigid Shea, who initially declined to vote one way or the other, voted in favor of approving the modernization of the street on the condition that the item be brought back to the court to address the concerns of community members.

“Today, Thomas Springs Road faces a massive road-widening plan that expands vehicle lanes and adds six-foot shoulders as bike lanes, which will effectively convert 1.5 miles of country lanes into a four-lane highway,” said concerned property owner Susan Webster. “Why the huge disparity?” Webster asked, referring to the discrepancy between the treatments of Thomas Springs Road and Circle Drive, a similar road which was narrowed, instead of widened, despite the 2017 result of a bond package vote to add bicycle lanes to both roads.

“Circle Drive and Thomas Springs Road are ostensibly the same project,” she said.

Webster further lamented the fact that project managers are asking for 48 percent more funding to modify the design, “to take less right of way and destroy fewer trees… … And those are laudable goals, but they don’t say how much or how many, nor how they will be distributed along the road.”

Big-ticket costs of the project redesign will include drainage culverts, ditches and retaining walls.

“No rationale is specifically listed for these changes, and I can only conclude that the designers made mistakes in the first iteration which hinge on the lack of environmental survey,” Webster speculated. “How can the commissioners be expected to vote to approve taxpayer funds without additional information?” she asked, referring to environmental surveys which could assess natural features, including springs and aquifers, in the Thomas Springs area. Features which, Webster says, are negatively impacted by road runoff.

Other commenters claimed they were offered no input during the public outreach period of the design phase of the project.

Thomas Springs resident Joyce Johnson, who lives on the street in question, said that fewer than 20 bicycle riders pass her house each weekend.

“Like 99 percent of riders travel south and do not return via Thomas Springs Road,” Johnson said, though admittedly her survey was anecdotal the result of four barking dogs that watch the front yard with a view of the roadway.

“There has never been an opportunity for the interested public, along with counting engineers or staff, to mutually discuss options, alignment, and social and environmental impacts,” Johnson said. “The most important part of planning and decision making to me is the inclusion of a needs assessment and an environmental assessment.”

Residents have hired an environmental lawyer and road engineer to advise them on this issue.

This story has been changed since publication to clarify residents’ objections to the plan, which largely center on the expansion of the road in general, not specifically the bike lanes. Editor’s Note: Andy Brown is on the board of the Capital of Texas Media Foundation, the parent nonprofit of the Austin Monitor.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Travis County Commissioners Court: The legislative body for Travis County. It includes representatives from the four Travis County Precincts, as well as the County Judge. The County Judge serves as the chair of the Court.

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