The Mobility Authority workshop focused on ways to improve bike and pedestrian mobility in Oak Hill. - photo by Bobbie Sawyer
by Bobbie Jean Sawyer
Oak Hill cyclists and trail enthusiasts were front and center at the latest installment of the Oak Hill Parkway environmental workshops hosted by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA). The workshop, held Tuesday, March 19 at the ACC Pinnacle, focused on ways to improve bike and pedestrian mobility in Oak Hill.
Rick Perkins, vice president of the Oak Hill Trails Association, gave a presentation on in-progress trail projects, such as the ‘Y’ to Barton Creek (YBC) trail.
Perkins said the YBC would provide Oak Hill residents with an off-road route to downtown.
“This is going to be our major connection to the Barton Creek bridge,” Perkins said. “We hope to bring everybody in Oak Hill on a bicycle to downtown.”
Perkins, who said he uses trails at least once a week, said trails provide a unique view of Austin that many never see.
“The main thing is there’s a whole other world to the city that people don’t know about. If you only sit in your car or on a bicycle on a regular road, and you never walk a trail or just go somewhere that is off the road, you don’t know what really is around here in Austin. There are so many things to see,” Perkins said. “Williamson Creek is awesome. You can walk it all the way to I-35. There are some sections that are 200 feet wide and it’s just solid limestone.”
Trails are just one part of an effort to provide neighborhood connectivity, said Perkins, who described Oak Hill as ‘disconnected,’ due to a lack of sidewalks and limited bike lanes.
“We’re starting to get some bike lanes. The city is doing a good job at what they do. They take a regular road like William Cannon and put it on a road diet—that’s what they call it, a road diet—and then they squish in a bike lane,” Perkins said. “But those are all on-road and those are just on the major roads so we’re trying to develop off-road (lanes).”
Perkins said the YBC trail, which will run about 5 miles and cost an estimated $1.8 million per mile, is unique in that some of it will be located on private land, provided that current agreements with landowners are finalized.
“That’s where you want it—away from the roads, where it’s more healthy, more beautiful and will actually become something that people will want to ride on,” Perkins said. “It will become a destination.”
Chad Crager, a project manager with the neighborhood connectivity division of the pubic works department, manages and designs construction of bicycle and pedestrian facilities for the city.
Crager presented on the Urban Trail Master Plan, which addresses trails within the city, including the Oak Hill Trails Association.
“An urban trail will generally be a hard surface, something you can use for both recreation and transportation,” Crager said. “We’re also going to start in the next 4 to 6 months, a design process for the YBC. All we have right now is funding for part of the design.”
Crager said increasing access to trails would help mobility issues in conjunction with the potential Oak Hill Parkway project.
“Our goals are really no different than (the Mobility Authority) and that’s to move as many people as we can. Forever this area has had no connectivity. You’ve got to get in your car to drive to another neighborhood. Now, all of a sudden, with this we open the door for this entire area to get downtown off-street as a family,” Crager said. “I talk to people two or three times a week that all say ‘If I could only ride my bike I would’ but right now it’s suicide to get from here to downtown without getting in your car or hopping on a bus, which also has a congestion issue.”
Crager said increasing bike mobility would require more than simply adding in bike lanes along streets and highways.
“Peoples’ number one concern about riding a bicycle is safety, so we need to build more facilities that are family-friendly,” Crager said. “A bicycle lane is great but more than likely people want something that’s separate from the road, whether it’s a buffered bicycle lane or an off-road trail.”
Steve Pustelnyk, communications director for the CTRMA, addressed attendees on project possibilities and financial limitations. Pustelnyk said depending on the outcome of the environmental study, it’s likely that the Mobility Authority will be involved in the financing and construction of the Oak Hill Parkway project.
“If it leads down the path that we are responsible, the chances are that it would be a tolled project in terms of the expressway portion,” Pustelnyk said. “Generally speaking, because it’s a tolled project it has to be financially feasible. We have to generate enough money from the users in order to finance everything we build, including whatever amenities, like trails, that we might add.”
Pustelnyk said the Mobility Authority would continue to gather community input while assessing and prioritizing suggested amenities.
“We do have some limitations on how much we can spend on those amenities,” said Pustelnyk. “I’d love to see a lot of this built but there will come a point where we have to pick our priorities about what are the most important elements that we can afford to do within the scope of the project.”
Tom Wald, executive director of Bike Austin, an organization devoted to bringing more people to biking in Austin through political advocacy and community outreach, said he’s pleased to see the CTRMA come to the biking community directly to gather input.
“In this case, I think (the CTRMA) did a great job with their outreach. A previous project we had spoken up on—the MoPac improvement project—we had spoken up to get bike and pedestrian facilities into that project,” Wald said. “In this case they’re really coming to the issue head-on and making sure they get input from the community on what would be the best way to prioritize bike and pedestrian facilities with a limited amount of resources.”
Wald said the benefits of biking extends to all road-users.
“For those who don’t bike, what’s kind of amazing is if you give people the environment, the bikeways to be able to bike for their local trips, you’ll actually reduce congestion on the highways and on the major arterials on the streets,” Wald said. “So the people who do need to drive to be able to get to where they need to go will have an easier time doing it because there’ll be less congestion.”
Wald said the lack of safe avenues for biking in Oak Hill places a significant limitation on cyclists.
According to Wald: “There’s perhaps two-thirds of the population that would like to bike, to be able to get around by bike—not necessarily every trip but a lot of the trips. What we’re seeing is that most of these people want a place to bike where they feel safe and comfortable, and where there’s high-speed traffic they want to have a physical barrier. It could either be a trail or some kind of bike lane that actually has a concrete barrier between the cars and them.”
Perhaps the biggest obstacle in Southwest Austin is the major roads that cut through potential bike routes, Wald said.
“There are some decent routes within Oak Hill, but then when you get to the major roads there’s no way to get to the grocery stores or whatever. It’s very difficult. To get from Oak Meadow over to Convict Hill you have to get on 290 for that section. That’s pretty frightening,” Wald said. “There’s no good and comfortable route between Oak Hill and the rest of Austin. There are a number of ways you could connect that, through the trail is one option—the YBC trail. That would connect into the MoPac trail that the city of Austin is building over Barton Creek along MoPac.”
Wald said Bike Austin’s contribution in Oak Hill would be assisting with funding.
“There’s already a pretty active community out here for getting the trails in and getting bike connectivity,” Wald said. “I think (the CTRMA) is going to be good about keeping to what they say they’re going to be doing, but beyond that it’s going to be getting funding or finding funding for it, whether it be through bond elections or some other source.”
Wald said the completion and improvement of trails would increase the number of cyclists in Oak Hill and connect the community with the rest of Austin in a way that’s never been possible.
“Oak Hill has a lot of potential because it does have a lot of good roads inside of it and has a lot of people who are interested in biking. It’s just that it’s disconnected,” Wald said. “I think you’ll see a lot more people biking when they can actually come from here and go all the way downtown.”
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