by Bobbie Jean Sawyer
With the launch of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority-directed Oak Hill Parkway Environmental Impact Study last month, one local group feels it has a new opportunity to have its voices heard.
The original Oak Hill Parkway people—the members of Fix 290, a grassroots community organization dedicated to developing an environmentally friendly, non-tolled parkway in Oak Hill—have waited over two decades for traffic relief at the ‘Y’, and they’re willing to wait a little longer for what they hope is a job done right.
The group was formed in 2005 in response to TxDOT’s original plan for a 50-foot elevated, 12-lane toll road at the ‘Y’.
“We’re not just naysayers who say ‘don’t build the road’”, said Carol Cespedes, a founding member of Fix 290. “We just want to do it better.”
Steve Beers, also a founding member of Fix 290 and member of the Save Barton Creek Association, said he believes TxDOT’s original plan would have had a negative impact on Oak Hill’s unique environmental characteristics as well as the local economy and way of life.
“I think once a person has paid a toll, is on a road, and is elevated above everything, they’ll just keep driving. They won’t exit and patronize businesses at the Y,” Beers said. “So I think there’s this angst, like, yeah, we want a bigger road but at this price? A lot of people are sort of riding the fence. We thought instead of being choice takers for whatever the government wants, why not be choice makers?”
Fix 290, made up of residents, business owners and concerned citizens from all walks of life, got to work developing their own concept for a 6-lane, non-tolled parkway.
“We developed it as a concept to try to come up with something that would move the projected traffic but would not have this very large, very damaging footprint,” Beers said.
In addition to developing the parkway concept, Fix 290 rallied local citizens against the proposed plan, spreading anti-toll flyers around the neighborhood, gathering signatures and writing letters to TxDOT and the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization.
“They suddenly realized this isn’t just a shoo-in,” Cespedes said. “The community is raising a fuss.”
Fix 290 member Beki Halpin, a 20-year resident of Oak Hill and member of the Scenic Brook Neighborhood Association, said the group’s parkway plan is a more accurate representation of Oak Hill’s true character.
“We feel like this area is the gateway into Oak Hill. It has the oaks, which Oak Hill is named for, and we wanted to preserve that if we could,” Halpin said. “So we still had some character in our neighborhood that we all moved out here for. We were looking for a way that everybody could get what they wanted as much as possible without going with just whatever the engineers said they wanted to do because it makes sense to them as engineers.”
Halpin said she’s hopeful that the community-selected moniker Oak Hill Parkway will be indicative of the direction the community wants to go with the project.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to build a ground level parkway,” Halpin said. “What it means is a majority of people out here value the attributes of a parkway, which is that it doesn’t just come in and raise a massive cement behemoth that destroys the aesthetics of the area and it still allows people to come and go freely. It relieves congestion as well.”
Steve Pustelnyk, director of communications for the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, said that while the term “parkway” is open ended, it does reflect a more environmentally-conscious, less intrusive roadway.
“That’s one of the reasons why Oak Hill Parkway is viewed as an acceptable name for this study because it does not pre-suppose a specific design for the roadway but it does suggest that aesthetics and the environment are going to be an important part of the project and of the process,” Pustelnyk said.
Pustelnyk said while he’s not sure all of Fix 290’s concepts would be feasible, he has started a dialogue with the group, which he hopes to continue throughout the process.
“We’ve heard the message of Fix 290—we know that some of their concerns are about elevated structures and large interchanges. I’m sure as we approach this process we will look at ways we can minimize, for example, elevated structures,” Pustelnyk said. “This is not going to be a cookie cutter, jam-it-down-your-throats approach to this process. It will be a process that engages the community and tries to incorporate as much reasonable public input into the process and the outcome as possible.”
Cespedes said while Fix 290’s protest of the original TxDOT plan, which was tabled due to an outdated Environmental Impact Study, has earned them some criticism among some in the community, she believes a slower approach will ensure the project is in the community’s best interest.
“People have accused us of causing a delay. We just kind of slowed down and ensured that they did the right thing and that’s still our plan,” Cespedes said. “We need to be alert and make sure that they include community input and look at alternatives—do all these things that they are required to do and not just try to steamroll a toll road.”
Beers said scrapping the old plan and starting anew will also save money in the long run.
“People who say ‘build it now’ are naive because the bigger it is and the costlier it is, the longer it will take and the more pain it will cause to do it. That’s where I think we can save time and money by doing it right, by doing the planning right,” Beers said. “Impatience has a price.”
Bruce Melton, a volunteer engineer with Fix 290, said he views Fix 290’s branding of the parkway concept as the group’s crowning achievement.
“Through our outreach I think both of these things—the name awareness and the concept awareness—have allowed this brand to become acknowledged as a leading brand, as what the community wants to see,” Melton said. “We’ve made the community aware that there is an alternative.”
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