by Bobbie Jean Sawyer
AUSTIN – TxDOT is developing a new alternative concept for the Oak Hill Parkway project. The concept is being constructed through meetings with core members of Fix 290, a grassroots community coalition proposing an environmentally responsible alternative with a minimal concrete footprint.
In a recent press release, Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (Mobility Authority) community outreach manager Melissa Hurst said the finalized concept will be presented along with the other alternatives during an open house in the fall.
Fix 290 member Carol Cespedes said the meetings were a collaborative effort between Fix 290 and TxDOT engineers rather than a Fix 290 plan.
“In each of these meetings there were suggestions provided by our group and solutions by TxDOT engineers,” Cespedes said. “It was tremendous. It was like a whole new world. We were very optimistic.”
Cespedes said Fix 290 submitted additional ideas, suggestions and approvals to TxDOT following their August meeting and is currently waiting on a new draft and drawing of the concept from TxDOT engineers.
The Mobility Authority released a list of some of the features Fix 290 wants to see in the new alternative, which includes the following:
• U.S. 290 being partially depressed in a rolling profile
• All major cross streets go over US 290
• A modified roundabout instead of direct connection ramps at U.S. 290 and SH 71
• William Cannon realigned to avoid large trees on the south side
• Minimize construction that would increase impervious cover, compromise trees or channelize Williamson Creek
However, in a Fix 290 position paper authored by Fix 290 member and engineer Bruce Melton, the coalition stated its opposition to some of the points listed in the Mobility Authority release.
While the Mobility Authority states that the new alternative will include “only one overpass at the ‘Y’ —for westbound traffic,” Melton said Fix 290’s preferred concept, deemed Alternative F, does not include an overpass.
“Alternative F has no bridge,” Melton said in an email response. “The mainlanes are depressed like all other alternatives and everything else is at ground level.”
Cespedes said the Mobility Authority’s statement that neighborhoods would not have direct access to U.S. 290 and “minor street access would be cul-de-sac’d off where possible to limit direct access to major arterials” is at odds with Fix 290’s vision.
“Neighborhood access is not cut off at any time,” Cespedes said. “The only street that is cul-de-sac’d in this plan, if they buy it, is Hill Oaks. Hill Oaks has access to Escarpment and doesn’t have to feed directly onto the 290 main lanes.”
Fix 290 member Beki Halpin said she believes TxDOT’s inclusion of greener solutions is a promising change of pace for the historically concrete-oriented organization.
“The beauty of Oak Hill is of course what draws people out here, so we wanted to preserve that beauty and I think they’re trying to do that now. The first round, they didn’t even mark where the trees were, hardly, let alone think about preserving them,” Halpin said. “Now they’re marking where the trees are, thinking about how to preserve them and thinking about the creek and how they can preserve the creek.”
Halpin said the efforts of concerned community members is reflected in all the alternatives, which favor limited elevation over TxDOT’s original flyover plan.
“All of the design alternatives that they’re presenting have low or almost no elevation to them, but they’re still perfectly functional,” Halpin said. “They still get traffic through Oak Hill and around Oak Hill. It seems to me like it’s been a win-win result.”
Halpin said a major goal of Fix 290’s contribution is to provide convenient access to all areas of Oak Hill.
“The alternative that we are presenting allows, I think, the best access. We tried really hard to preserve the access to all of the establishments, businesses, neighborhoods, hospitals, ACC and the schools,” Halpin said. “We tried very hard to think ‘If you lived here and you wanted to go here, could you get there? How could you get there?” We tried to preserve all of that access as well as realize the goals for the highways. In that regard I think people should get behind it.”
Cespedes said there are still several factors at play when considering the future of the Oak Hill Parkway.
“We’re looking 20, 30 years into the future. There will be different businesses, different settlement patterns, different developments, hopefully more green space preserved. During the process, before this is finally funded and constructed, there will be several decision points. We’re going to have to have funds approved, we’re going to have to find where the money is coming from,” Cespedes said. “That’s what happened with the old road. You have a plan, but then you have reality.”
That is one major factor still yet to be determined: how to pay for the project, whatever it may be.
“We have been informed that this phase of the conversation does not involve financing. It doesn’t involve economics,” Cespedes said.
The involvement of the Mobility Authority, a tolling authority, has led many to believe the project will be tolled, said Cespedes, who said Fix 290 largely favors a non-tolled roadway.
“We have to consider both tolled and non-tolled alternatives,” Cespedes said.
Dan Rogers, a professional transportation engineer who’s been driving through the ‘Y’ since the 1970s, said an at-grade parkway option doesn’t provide the necessary traffic capacity to carry Oak Hill into the future.
“The whole issue is capacity. When everybody talks about a parkway what they miss in the concept is that there’s not nearly the through-vehicle capacity of a parkway lane that there would be of a freeway lane,” Rogers said. “If you take a four-lane freeway and turn it into a parkway, it would take an eight-lane parkway to carry the same capacity of a four-lane freeway.”
Parkway proponents have pointed out in the past that traffic moves slower on a parkway lane (especially if there are scenic landscaping elements left intact), allowing cars to travel closer together, thus somewhat compensating in capacity for the fewer cars at higher speeds that are spaced much farther apart on a typical freeway.
Rogers said a proper transportation plan should address not only the vehicles that currently travel through the ‘Y,’ but also the residents who have been using alternative routes to avoid the congested 290/71 intersection.
Rogers added that sufficient traffic capacity through the ‘Y’ should support approximately 82,000 vehicles.
“Everybody that lives in Oak Hill has a way to get around the ‘Y,'” Rogers said. “You can’t get a parkway to fix what’s there because the demand will rise to whatever level of capacity is built unless you build (with sufficient capacity).”
Rogers said he prefers an option with grade-separated intersections and direct freeway level access to and from SH 71, similar to what was originally proposed by TxDOT.
“The original concept was a freeway with grade separation intersections at William Cannon and SH 71. In other words, all the SH 71 traffic does not intersect with the 290 traffic and all the William Cannon traffic does not intersect with the through traffic on 290/71,” Rogers said. “The problem is U.S. 290—while it’s connected to a freeway and has freeway level traffic—it’s not a freeway.”
While the Oak Hill Parkway remains a point of contention for the Oak Hill community, Cespedes said the project has allowed the community to create a dialogue and work together to find a solution.
“I think what we have done is provide a channel for communication among people who care enough to be involved in it,” Cespedes said. “We’ve been able to open serious conversations and keep it on track.”
The Oak Hill Parkway project was launched in November 2012 with a series of open houses and public meetings to develop alternative design concepts. Nine concepts were released to the public last May.
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