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Council postpones decision on historic Barton Springs Bridge reconstruction

Friday, December 1, 2023 by Jo Clifton

Although city staff urged City Council to authorize a complete destruction and rebuilding of the historic Barton Springs Bridge, Council postponed action on the item Thursday. Several members of the public urged them not to move forward with the plan and criticized the process for lacking sufficient public input.

“When the Council is asked to vote on a bridge replacement project for public safety reasons, I understand that it is difficult to not heed that advice,” Bobby Levinski, of the Save Our Springs Alliance, said. However, he said there was no urgency in acting on the request.

Levinski pointed out that there would be time to send questions about the initial design phase through the boards and commissions process. He said such a postponement would not be just for the purpose of delaying the project, but that it was necessary to answer important questions.

Neither the Parks and Recreation Board nor the Environmental Commission nor the Historic Landmark Commission have been given the opportunity to express their views on demolition and replacement of the historic bridge, Levinski said.

Bill Bunch of the Save Our Springs Alliance and Roy Waley, representing the local Sierra Club, both expressed opposition to demolition of the bridge. Bunch also provided a letter from engineer Tom Kam.

In a letter that Bunch shared with Council and the media, Kam said, “given the massive construction of the existing bridge, the amount of material to be removed will be very costly and intrusive. Repairing and maintaining the existing structure, to (extend) its life many more decades, will be far less than just the cost of removal.”

Bunch also pointed out that neither the public posting nor the backup memo mentions that the bridge proposed for replacement was designated as historic. In addition, he complained that meeting notes failed to include the engineering report, which staff was asking Council to approve, including demolition.

In an email to Council,  Ted Eubanks, an expert on heritage structures, noted that the bridge was built in 1926, expanded in 1946 and is a contributing part of the history of Zilker Park. He wrote, “Therefore, any demolition may jeopardize the current or future potential for federal funding for the park as a whole.”

After hearing from the public, Council Member Mackenzie Kelly posed questions to outside engineers who would be working on the project, then turned to interim City Manager Jesús Garza, asking him whether Council and the public would be briefed on mitigation efforts during demolition and reconstruction of the bridge.

“I think what’s missing here – we should have done a better predicate of why this item is a hearing, why it’s before you,” Garza responded. “This is the result of a resolution. Council asked us to come back in terms of its design. … We don’t have the context.”

He said staff had started in the middle. “It is a safety issue,” he said, but offered to give Council more background on the matter.

Kelly said she would prefer more information before moving forward. Mayor Kirk Watson took Kelly’s statement and made it into a motion to postpone a decision until Dec. 14, including a possible work session on Dec. 12. He indicated he thought it was possible for Council to direct the item to go to boards and commissions as a result of action on Dec. 14.

On the other hand, Mayor Pro Tem Paige Ellis seemed more than ready to move forward with a new bridge. She represents District 8, which includes Zilker Park. Ellis said she had gone to a meeting about the bridge as early as 2015. She acknowledged that the bridge is beautiful, particularly from underneath, and noted that the Council Mobility Committee had discussed the item.

Photo by Larry D. MooreCC BY 4.0This story has been changed since publication. The letter Bunch provided was from engineer Tom Kam, not Ted Eubanks, as was originally reported.

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