Features of the LJA team’s winning Green Mobility proposal (above) included a regional park at the current HEB center site, a separate “Oak Hill Parkway” to serve a town center and the Austin Community College, and the relocation of Williamson Creek to allow U.S. 290 West to be widened at grade level. These are ideas that could be used in a long term mobility solution for the ‘Y’ area, according to CTRMA officials.
by Bobbie Jean Sawyer
AUSTIN – Though it’s notorious for being one of the most congested road segments in Central Texas, proposed redesigns of the ‘Y’ intersection have long been a subject of contention in Oak Hill. After decades of stops and starts, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority is gearing up for a rebirth of the project—finding the long-term solution to fixing the ‘Y’.
Although work is slated to begin soon on a “continuous flow” intersection re-design at the ‘Y’, that is seen by transportation officials as a short-term fix for ‘Y’ traffic congestion.
Steve Pustelnyk, director of communications for Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA), said the agency would put the ideas and concerns of Oak Hill citizens at the forefront of the project, which will kick off with an upcoming community forum. That forum will take place on Wednesday, August 29, from 6:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. at ACC Pinnacle Campus in the 10th floor meeting room.
“What we’re really trying to do is start over,” Pustelnyk said. “There are no preconceived notions at this point. The branding process is really the first step in establishing that. We want to come up with a brand or a vision for the project.”
Pustelnyk said the upcoming forum will engage community members in the project-naming process to brand the potential ‘Y’ redesign to reflect community values.
“We need to look at some of the wide range of alternatives that might be done beyond just building an expressway through there,” said Pustelnyk, who said the agency may draw from the ideas developed during the Green Mobility Challenge, a 2011 roadway design contest sponsored by TxDOT and CTRMA, in which teams submitted environmentally friendly roadway design plans. “Nothing’s off the table at the starting point,” he added.
“We’re not going to be able to do everything to make our projects perfect, totally non-impactful projects, but we need to be looking at being more sustainable and the elements we need to include so that these projects are more sustainable, more embedded and ingrained in the community.”
Aan Coleman, a landscape architect and board member of the Oak Hill Association of Neighborhoods (OHAN), was part of the award-winning team whose designs won first place in the Green Mobility Challenge.
“Hopefully they’ll take serious consideration of those ideas that they got from us, a large talent pool of local consultants,” said Coleman, who said she wants to see a redesign project that compliments Oak Hill’s sense of community and encourages tourism.
“If they don’t use some of these techniques our community is fearful that we’re just going to become a major intersection rather than a community,” Coleman said. “One of my concerns with the Green Mobility Challenge was that it would just go away and that it would remain just a bunch of good ideas. I’m really excited and hopeful that that’s going to come to fruition.”
Noah Marburger, president of the Oak Hill Business and Professional Association (OHBPA), goes through the ‘Y’ intersection daily and knows as well as anyone the headaches caused by the roadway’s traffic jams. Marburger is Vice President in charge of commercial lending at Prosperity Bank, which sits next to Starbuck’s atop the hill directly overlooking the ‘Y’.
“Traffic at the ‘Y’ is obviously a large deterrent to people coming out to this area,” Marburger said. “As Dripping Springs and the outlining areas along 290 continue to grow, which they are—there are several subdivisions that continue to pop up along 290—it’s just going to continue to worsen.”
Despite its problems, Marburger said there’s no denying the intersection’s significance within the community.
“It’s funny to think in terms of an intersection meaning something to a community, but it is a landmark,” Marburger said. “A lot of people are familiar with the 290-71 split. I guess it feels almost like the heart of Oak Hill.”
As president of OHBPA, Marburger said mobility improvements are a necessity for local economic growth. “If you improve the mobility of our community it will ultimately improve our local economy by making it easier and more attractive for residents as well as visitors to do business in Oak Hill,” he said.
Pustelnyk said CTRMA will gather ideas put forth during the forum and use the feedback to put together a list of alternatives to be examined in terms of cost, community interest and necessity, and then narrow it down to the best solution.
Pustelnyk said it’s likely that the continuous flow intersections put in place as a temporary fix to the congestion problem will eventually be removed in favor of a new design plan.
“The first thing the public is going to have to start giving us feedback on is the need and purpose,” Pustelnyk said. “Then we start putting out the alternatives and studying those relative to public input, need and purpose and other factors, such as cost.”
The CTRMA will then invite participants to vote on the project name, to be developed into a logo, and presented in time for the launch of an environmental study in October.
Due to the controversial nature and long history of the project, Pustelnyk said the federal highway administration will require a full Environmental Impact Statement, a study of all environmental and sociological effects that the project could potentially have, such as water impacts, air impacts, wildlife impacts, floodplains, noise and socio-economic issues.
“The downside to that, of course, is that means the project is going to be lengthy,” Pustelnyk said. “We’re not going to have this project under construction within the next three years. We’re looking at five to ten years at the earliest.”
This marks the first time CTRMA has taken on such a major role in the project. The agency, which was established in 2002 to improve the transportation system in Travis and Williamson counties, targeted the ‘Y’ as a priority project.
Pustelnyk said he believes CTRMA’s fresh approach of giving the community more early input in the process will help alleviate tension between opposing sides and develop a project that is both sensitive to environmental concerns and able to reduce the bumper to bumper traffic that has plagued Oak Hill drivers for years.
“Solutions and compromise are about listening, analyzing and then being realistic about what can and can’t be done,” Pustelnyk said. “If we can coalesce around some things and be open to some new ideas hopefully we can get somewhere with the project this time.”
Robert Cullick, a consultant to CTRMA, said he anticipates that environmental concerns will be a significant part of the discussion.
“Roads are generally not an environmental issue. They don’t break down. They don’t pollute the earth,” Cullick said. “Generally the concern is opening up the area for more development. When we talk about the environmental effects of roads it’s more about the context of having a road.”
Another element of contention is the issue of toll roads.
“We are not by law a toll agency, we’re a mobility agency,” Pustelnyk said. “We have the ability to do almost anything within the realm of regional transportation.”
However, Pustelnyk said given the limited transportation funding, it’s likely toll roads will be necessary to pay for the final project.
“The broad assumption right now is that it will probably have to be tolled,” Pustelnyk said. “Right now, by the way transportation is being funded at the federal and state level, it’s a very bleak picture.”
Pustelnyk touted the US-183 A toll road, which runs from northwest Austin through Cedar Park, as a convenient, timesaving alternative route, which proved beneficial for all drivers.
“Everybody benefited hugely from the toll road, both people who used it and those who didn’t,” Pustelnyk said. “People who used the toll roads saved even more time but there was a 30 percent drop in travel time on the non-tolled road.”
Pustelnyk said CTRMA’s goal is to work with Oak Hill residents to develop a roadway solution that fits with the spirit of Oak Hill and establishes a defining sense of place that represents the community.
“We don’t have control over development out there beyond the roadway, but we would like people to think of the roadway in a holistic sense as we’re doing the branding,” Pustelnyk said. “How can we create a destination sense? The roadway may become the first step in that creation.”
Pustelnyk again pointed to 183-A in Cedar Park as an example.
“We had a mural of a cattle drive engraved into the side of the bridge structure to create a sense of place in that location. When you’re driving down 1431, you have this sort of art deco look to the area that creates a sense of place. You associate 183-A and that imagery with Cedar Park,” Pustelnyk said. “Obviously there’s cost and constructability to consider, and it’s still a roadway in the end. But as much as we can, we’d like to try and make the project blend into the community and feel like it’s part of it.”
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