On a recent sunny day, members of Fix290 hiked along Williamson Creek near the ‘Y’, less than 50 feet from the highway. The group is concerned that neither one of the remaining build alternatives for the Oak Hill Parkway does enough to protect the creek. From left, Bruce Melton and Carol Cespedes. – photo by Alan Watts
by Ann Fowler
OAK HILL – Transportation officials recently continued holding open houses and accepting public comment on what they call the “Oak Hill Parkway” to provide infrastructure improvements to and through the ‘Y’ area. In an attempt to find a consensus, the Oak Hill Association of Neighborhoods (OHAN) has formed a Cohesive Neighborhood Committee, which recently presented TxDOT with a unanimous resolution with recommendations on the parkway design and construction, including:
• Eliminate or minimize elevation using modern technology and creative design.
• Incorporate efficient and convenient ingress and egress for all existing Oak Hill neighborhoods and businesses so they can reach destinations within and outside of Oak Hill.
• Incorporate innovative technology and design to create efficient intersections that promote traffic flow. Eliminate pinch-points and bottlenecks utilizing dedicated turn lanes and “Texas Turnarounds.” Devise merge points to include sufficient length and avoid crossover merges.
• Design highway(s) in a manner that considers all non-tolled funding opportunities available.
• Allow future additions of park and ride facilities; convenient and increased access to bus, car and vanpooling and other public transportation options.
The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA) is working with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), the City of Austin and Travis County on the Oak Hill Parkway, with a goal to improve mobility through Oak Hill, increase multimodal travel options, and improve safety and emergency response.
While everyone agrees that a solution to the heavy congestion at the ‘Y’ is needed, finding an ideal solution is problematic. Even the use of the term “parkway” causes minor consternation. Merriam-Webster defines a parkway as “a wide road with trees and grass along the sides and often in the middle.”
Oak Hill Parkway officials take a broader view, subscribing to the idea that “any road can be called a parkway,” but local resident Bruce Melton disagrees. Melton, an engineer, is a member of Fix290, a group that prefers a single-level parkway with fewer lanes than those proposed by TxDOT.
Melton told the Gazette, “TxDOT’s alternatives for the Oak Hill Parkway are both elevated non-parkways with frontage roads. How can TxDOT call this project the Oak Hill Parkway and not present a parkway alternative?” Melton worries that such a huge roadway will be the end of Oak Hill as we know it.
Steve Beers, another Fix290 member, added, “The parkway term implies a natural aesthetic wholly incompatible with an elevated tollway and frontage roads (a total of twelve lanes wide).” He believes an elevated structure would overshadow—as in blocking sunlight from above—natural features near Williamson Creek. Other natural features could be erased by clearing, grading or paving, he said.
Added local resident and Fix290 member Carol Cespedes, “The thing that disturbed me most about both Alternatives A and C was the cavalier treatment of the Williamson Creek corridor between Joe Tanner and the ‘Y’ —an area filled with those natural features that have defined the identity of Oak Hill.”
Many also worry about the number of oak trees that will be cleared during construction. This is, after all, Oak Hill. Scenic Brook resident Kevin Gray said, “Options A and C now destroy the Joe Tanner Grove and other trees that can easily be saved by conscientious design adjustments, and these designs still have sections that cross back and forth over Williamson Creek.”
But transportation officials say they are mindful of the environment. Melissa Hurst, CTRMA Community Outreach Manager, told the Gazette, “We are still evaluating the impacts to the trees. We are beginning to work with our tree advocates and starting work on a new tree survey.”
She added, “Impacts will be unavoidable as part of this project. However, impacts will be minimized as much as practical for both Alternatives A and C. We are working to limit channel construction to only what is required for the new bridges over the creek.”
Dick Armitage is a member of the Oak Hill Neighborhood Planning Contact Team, as well as a neighborhood representative to OHAN. He said, “I have to say that I am pleased and impressed with the effort TxDOT and the other public transportation agencies have made to reach out to and communicate with the community. These efforts have resulted in designs which come a long way in meeting the objectives of the various factions.”
Officials said Alternatives A and C have been revised in recent months in response to feedback. Those changes included:
• Eastbound U.S. 290 West exit to S.H. 71 moved west
• New eastbound U.S. 290 West braided ramp for RM 1826
• New westbound U.S. 290 West braided ramp for Circle Drive
• S.H. 71 frontage road / Scenic Brook Drive intersection reconfigured
• U.S. 290 West mainlanes would have a minimum 3 lanes in each direction
• U.S. 290 West eastbound widened from Joe Tanner to near MoPac
Gray said, “Although they have made some positive alterations in their two remaining alternatives, I am disappointed in both of these choices.”
Robert Tobiansky, a member of the OHAN Cohesive Neighborhood Committee, appreciates the changes he has seen in the Oak Hill Parkway concepts. He says the transportation officials are listening, and added, “TxDOT is continually revising their schematics/concept. This project is an evolving and lengthy process. Many residents (OHAN and the Cohesive Neighborhood Committee) are committed to working with TxDOT throughout this build for the betterment of Oak Hill, its neighborhoods and all drivers that will be utilizing these roads.”
He said of choices offered, he prefers Alternative A: “It offers much better access to the proposed Oak Hill U.S. 290 West/S.H. 71 Parkway. Better accessibility to local access roads, depressed lanes for less height and less impactful to neighborhood visibility. Concept C is detrimental to Emergency services and first responders. It fails the TxDOT ‘Purpose’ statement. It is inconvenient to ingress and egress, wasting time, fuel and other valuable resources.”
Armitage also preferred Alternative A. He said, “Despite the excessive width of its footprint, I think it has the least negative impact on the Oak Hill communities and is the more attractive of the two designs.”
Granada Hills resident David Richardson sees pros and cons in both choices. He said, “Concepts A and C both have favorable elements and compromises that some will find regrettable. But we live in the real world and can’t get what we want all the time. The biggest plus is of course relief from traffic congestion we have all experienced far too long.”
Local resident Chris Curphey drives through the ‘Y’ every weekday, and says a significant amount of his 14-mile commute is spent slowly working his way between Scenic Brook and Mopac. He agrees that traffic relief is long overdue. He said, “A solution to the congestion in the Oak Hill Parkway area would considerably enhance living in West Oak Hill. It would save wasted gas and time spent idling and crawling through multiple cycles of the traffic signal. I have lived in the area about 3-1/2 years and from what I can tell, the dead horse beating has been going on for considerable time prior to my arrival.”
Considerable time is right. People have been planning and debating a roadway solution for more than 25 years. Gray called it an “excruciatingly slow road process.”
“It seems to me that it is time to get something done, knowing there is no perfect answer and not every citizen will be happy,” said Curphey. “We have to do what does the most good for the most people.”
Gray wants to see “a roadway design that handles all types of traffic well while benefiting our community with minimal disruption and destruction.” What he does not want to see is a toll road.
Armitage agrees. He said, “It appears that the cost to build the parkway will exceed $500 million and may be as much as $800 million. I am not convinced that we have an $800 million traffic problem at the ‘Y.’”
Still, Tobiansky says, “In any build, be it a sewer, a housing project or a highway, there will be inevitable loss of some environmental spaces.” He said the OHAN Cohesive Neighborhood Committee plans to work with TxDOT to minimize environmental concerns.
Hurst said, “TxDOT and the Mobility Authority are sensitive to the natural environment and will take every reasonable opportunity to protect it. Best Management Practices will be adhered to in developing temporary and permanent water quality treatment devices. TCEQ regulations regarding construction in the Edwards Aquifer will be adhered to.”
Ellen Troxclair, Council Member for District 8 in Oak Hill, has followed the ongoing process for years, attending various open houses about the roadway design. She said, “I do not have a strong preference between the two remaining choices, but think it is important that we keep the process moving in order to provide traffic relief in an increasingly congested area as soon as possible. Public input and environmental concerns must, and have been, taken into account, and I will be keeping in close contact with TxDOT to monitor the progress and completion of the project.”
Transportation officials actually offer a third choice. It’s called the No Build alternative. Said Cespedes, “I hope that doesn’t mean that the public must accept TxDOT plans as presented or there will be no build at all. We have already seen a plan for the highway through the Williamson Creek corridor that is far more friendly to the environment and the community than either Alternative A or C.” She was probably referring to the now off the table Alternative F that was favored by many in Fix290.
Another open house will be scheduled for this summer, where the public will be invited to review the roadway designs revised further based on the latest comments.
For information on the Oak Hill Parkway, see http://www.oakhillparkway.com/.