The start date for construction of the trail – May of 2010 – was delayed when the city realized this creek was in a FEMA floodplain, triggering complex hydraulic studies and permitting both from FEMA and the city of Austin.
By Ann Fowler
Westcreek residents were disappointed to discover that the city’s plan for an improved trail and pocket park near Brush Country Road and Summerset Trail has been put on hold. The current mulch-covered trail from Brush Country to Monterey Oaks extends through the city right-of-way. Joggers use it. People walk their dogs there. Some children use it as a shortcut to Patton Elementary or Small Middle School.
A small creek at the start of the trail can mean a precarious crossing during and after rains. The trail has been improved in recent years largely through the efforts of groups like the Westcreek Neighborhood Association (WNA) and the Oak Hill Trails Association (OHTA). The city’s plan to create a concrete multi-use trail would have allowed the safe use of the trail at any time.
Although city staffers were aware of the creek early in the planning stage, the original start date for construction – May of 2010 – was delayed when the city realized the creek was in a FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) floodplain, triggering complex hydraulic studies and permitting both from FEMA and the city of Austin.
At that time, Chad Crager, project manager with the Neighborhood Connectivity Division of the city’s Department of Public Works, told the Gazette, “We are currently going through these extra steps and expect to start construction in the spring of 2012.”
The city now says it could be years before the trail is completed. The trail was originally requested by OHTA to follow the current trail in the city’s right-of-way. WNA president Chris Schexnayder said the city approached WNA in 2009 proposing the “Safe Walk to School” path. Because of the many hours WNA and OHTA had spent on the current nature trail, WNA objected to paving the current path. They asked the City to adhere to the original plan to follow the power lines. Apparently this revised path veers into Austin Independent School District (AISD) territory, which created another set of problems.
According to Annick Beaudet of the Neighborhood Connectivity Division, the trail as currently planned could have resulted in cancellation of local bus routes. She said a staffer from the Child Safety Program told her, “When there are improvements — like pedestrian access to a school — AISD absolutely considers the cost of the buses and whether there’s a safe route within two miles.” She said the neighborhood balked at the possibility of losing its bus routes.
But that was not the only issue cited in the delay. Rick Perkins, one of the leaders of OHTA, said he was told putting a bridge over the small creek and rerouting the trail closer to the school drove the cost from $150,000 to $400,000. The groups were not told that the change would substantially raise the cost, and Perkins said his group never asked for a “safe route to school.”
In a February 22, 2009, letter to the city in support the project, Schexnayder wrote, “The trail which has been proposed by Oak Hill Trails Association starts where Brush Country dead-ends in Westcreek Neighborhood and extends through a now undeveloped city right of way out to Monterey Oaks Blvd and to Westcreek Drive where it dead-ends. This area is currently an overgrown area with a lot of oaks and other natural vegetation. The area is currently used to some degree by children as a cut through from the Westcreek Neighborhood to Patton Elementary and Small Middle School which are on the other side of it.” This may have given city staffers the suggestion to make the project a “safe route to school,” triggering the potential for losing bus service to nearby neighborhoods.
This week, Schexnayder told the Gazette, “After years of promising us the Safe Walk, the city has backed down on their promise. They say it is on hold — but I’m not holding my breath.”
Beaudet said when the delays cropped up, her department decided to send the money earmarked for Westcreek to another project that was “shovel ready.” “Our job is not to sit on money,” she said. “We always have way more projects ready or on our eye than we can fund at any given time. So we just went forward with the ones we thought were just as ready as this.”
WNA’s Schexnayder complained that he repeatedly but unsuccessfully tried to find out the status of the project. He said ultimately the city gave the task of reporting the delay to a city employee who lives in Westcreek.
Herschell Esquel of the city’s Child Safety Program has lived in the Westcreek area since 1983 and is familiar with the trail in question. In a letter to WNA, he said, “I’ve been asked to communicate with the Westcreek Neighborhood Association regarding the Safe Route to School Urban Trail at the end of Brush Country Road.”
He added, “Since the trail is in a flood plain, it required an engineering study. That engineering study has been completed at a cost of $50,000. Since Austin ISD made the decision not to pull the buses serving Patton Elementary School and Clint Small Middle School, the COA Safe Routes Program can’t justify the additional cost of approximately $400,000 to install the concrete trail. The decision has been made to put this plan on hold. Ms. Chris Moore, Child Safety Coordinator who also lived in this neighborhood for 25 years, has announced this to Patton and Small. In the future, if Austin ISD no longer provides bus service to these schools, the plan for this trail could be resurrected should funding become available.”
But Beaudet told the Gazette that the trail is still on the city’s radar – although off in the distance. “We are going to make an improvement in that area, some sort of trail improvement within the next 3 years,” she said. Funding depends on the 2012 bond election. “This project is a top project that we want to do. We are going to continue to work through the hurdles to get it more shovel-ready so that when that funding is there you are first on the list.”
She added that a way to cross the little creek remains problematic. “If we do any type of structure in that area, it triggers all these types of permits and studies and makes it significantly more expensive. That’s the problem. We’re hoping to figure out a cost-effective way to do it or to just leave it the way it is but make it a little better, but there will still be problems when there is significant water.”
Right now, residents balance on rocks to cross the water-filled creek or use some boards that have recently appeared at the crossing.
Local residents feel the withdrawal of a project that was originally announced as a done deal is just one more broken promise by the City. Said Schexnayder, “Bottom line is we have gotten the run-around from the City and they do not feel this project is worth the $400,000 they estimate the whole project to cost — why can’t they just say that? Meanwhile our utilities and property taxes continue to increase, with no real tangible benefits to Westcreek, other than an occasional re-paving of our streets with pesky gravel.”