In addition to the many displays, officials from TxDOT and CTRMA were on hand to answer questions. With new Continuous Flow Intersections now working in Oak Hill, some are beginning to question whether such a big project is even needed.
by Ann Fowler
An Open House for the Oak Hill Parkway project was held at Covington Middle School on October 29, attracting more than 150 attendees.
The Oak Hill Parkway is the current plan to relieve traffic congestion to and through the ‘Y’ at Oak Hill. The project is a combined effort of the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA), Capital Metro, the City of Austin and Travis County.
Current plans include lowering U.S. 290 West under cross-street at-grade (non-elevated) overpasses at Convict Hill Road, RM 1826, Scenic Brook Road and Circle Drive.
Officials from the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority provided updates to the designs for Alternatives A and C, plus ideas on off-site water detention and context sensitive solutions.
Alternative A would include a half-mile of elevated roadway, while Alternative C’s de-elevated roadway would run for a mile. Long-time Oak Hill resident Andrea Street said, “I was and still am not impressed with TxDOT’s elevated tolled highway.”
Many have long-opposed the plan to toll the long-existing roadways, and it is unclear how or if the influx of funds for roadways brought by Proposition 7, passed by Texas voters this week, will affect the project.
Public participation in past presentations of the Oak Hill Parkway project has led to several changes, including:
- Reducing the elevation at the ‘Y’
- Adding facilities for bicyclists an pedestrians
- Transitioning the project past Circle Drive
- Adding detention ponds that may reduce flooding
- Minimizing the project’s impact on Williamson Creek
Officials said the plan is to limit impact to existing trees such as the Grandmother and Grandfather Oaks and the Taco Bell Tree, which they are now calling the Beckett Grove Tree. The project includes a realignment of William Cannon Drive to avoid large trees, but local resident Carol Cespedes questions the need for that realignment. “Why not keep it on its present alignment?” she asks. “This would seem to reduce impact.”
The website for Save Oak Hill Trees (www.saveoakhilltrees.com) shows dozens of heritage trees—those with diameters of 24 inches or more—along the planned Oak Hill Parkway that would likely be removed to allow for the larger roadway.
Local resident Alan Watts has founded Save Oak Hill (www.saveoakhill.com) to make sure environmental concerns for the heritage trees and Williamson Creek don’t get lost.
For many, saving just a handful of the local trees is not enough—this is Oak Hill after all. And some believe Grandmother Oak has already been damaged by current road construction and are concerned that more will be damaged in the quest for road improvements.
Per federal law, an environmental impact study for U.S. 290 West from Mopac to RM 1826 is currently underway and is expected to be completed by 2017.
Officials say the traffic model by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) shows that by 2035, commuters would travel five miles in 30 minutes in this corridor without the new highway lanes. Cespedes questions CAMPO’s figures. She said, “I have seen criticism of the CAMPO traffic projections, which are based on a progressive three percent growth into the indefinite future. I would like to see a review of these projections.”
Cespedes also questions the need for so many traffic lanes. “These are not designed for the needs of the community,” she said. “I believe that the engineering is driven by orders to design a tolled highway that is much, much larger than the community needs now or will need in the foreseeable future.”
Street is not convinced that the Oak Hill Parkway as it currently exists is the answer. She said, “I do not believe it will solve the traffic problems—but only make it worse since most folks will not pay the toll every day and will be forced to use the free lanes—only making traffic worse, not better. The elevated portions will separate our community, but most importantly will destroy the beauty and uniqueness we as Oak Hillians call home.”
Commuters who drive through the ‘Y’ every day have demanded relief. Officials say traffic through the ‘Y’ is nearly three times the capacity for an acceptable signal-light intersection. But many drivers have seen a dramatic improvement through the area from smaller fixes like continuous flow intersections (CFIs) at the ‘Y’ and at William Cannon Drive. Cespedes said, “On some mornings I can go from Scenic Brook to Joe Tanner without a stop—or only a single light change.” She said the traffic backups are likely an issue with stoplight timing.
Some locals believe that if the congestion is cleared—as the CFIs seem to be doing—then a wider roadway isn’t really needed, although officials say they are planning for more traffic in years to come.
Street said, “Having been a resident of Oak Hill for 16 years, I have seen and witnessed the slow progression of traffic thru the ‘Y’ increase as this area is developed. I will add that the new [CFI] improvements have been a welcome change for those of us in Oak Hill who were used to constant gridlock. The changes have helped with my drive times as well as the flow of traffic thru the ‘Y’ and at William Cannon.”
While Oak Hill Parkway officials say a smaller project is not feasible, locals wonder why not in the wake of decreased traffic congestion by recent roadway improvements (see Letter to the Editor on p. 2).
In the early stages of the project, Concept F was demonstrated as the plan advanced by the local group Fix290. However officials told the public that design was not under consideration. Officials said the lack of frontage roads would not serve “as a reliable route” for emergency crews or the public if the road was closed. Locals wonder how that is any different from the current roadway.
Still, the question remains: will a superhighway through Oak Hill solve the traffic problem, or just get commuters to the bottleneck on Mopac faster?
One idea many consider reasonable is for Capital Metro to bulk up bus service and ridership in Oak Hill to get a substantial number of cars off the road. As it is, Oak Hill bus riders say they get only a fraction of the bus service provided to those in north Austin. Capital Metro has not invested in property for an Oak Hill Park and Ride facility, instead using property owned by TxDOT. In fact, riders say the parking lot was made smaller when some of the property was taken for a CFI at William Cannon and U.S. 290 West.
Cespedes has no doubt that an efficient and reliable bus service would help decrease local traffic. She said, “A 21st Century city depends on an efficient multi-modal public transportation system. We need to make this a priority and be prepared to invest.”
As it is, only one downtown route serves the Oak Hill Park and Ride—the Oak Hill Flyer (route 171). The shortcomings were evident last week when many bus riders were left to wait in the rain Friday as businesses closed early because of the weather. The first afternoon bus south does not leave the UT area until 3:40 p.m., while many businesses had closed by 3 p.m. Transit fans have said for years that having reliable service throughout the day would attract more riders, particularly UT students who don’t want to spend the entire day on campus when they only have morning or afternoon classes.
Cespedes concludes, “Oak Hill can no longer be regarded as a major point of congestion. We are presently well served by a new continuous flow intersection that has made vast improvements in traffic flow. We can no longer be regarded as a major point of congestion. The massiveness and high cost of this project do not seem justified.”
Added Street: “TxDOT has a perfect opportunity to work with the community and make this project a model for other environmentally diverse areas of the state.”
See www.OakHillParkway.com to receive more information on the project.