The city and local leaders have long been aware that the four-lane Barton Creek crossing needs an upgrade, and a review of options to improve the nearly century-old span is nearing its end. The bridge is one of five citywide that were identified as needing major upgrades in a report issued more than four years ago.
“We’re seeing some issues in there. Nothing that is structurally deficient or raises to any level that needs immediate attention tomorrow, but something that we need to plan for in the future," said Eric Bailey, assistant director of Austin's public works department, to City Council during a Nov. 10 briefing. "It needs to be rehabilitated or replaced to ensure the safety and longevity as well as improved circulation in this area for vehicles, pedestrians, bicycles, all the modes of transportation."
Following a recent engineering analysis, city staff is now leaning toward a total replacement of the bridge. Bailey said a "light touch" of rehab work is not preferred given factors such as its age and various structural unknowns.
Of several proposed replacement designs, Bailey said a bridge with "double 'Y'" pier design may be the best option for Austin to pursue. The public works department said a new bridge could provide benefits, such as an open Barton Creek waterway, better access for the now-inactive Zilker Eagle mini train and adjacent trails, and a less risky construction process.
A redesigned replacement bridge would not expand the current structure's main roadway, but widening for new bike and pedestrian lanes could be included in the plan as well as intersection improvements at Azie Morton Road.
“I think the community has told people loud enough that they don’t want it expanded. I’ve even heard people call for minimizing the number of lanes through that area. So I think this is more about bike and pedestrian safety and making sure that people can use the bus route that runs through there in a safe way and not trying to increase speeds and not trying to add lanes into this project," District 8 Council Member Paige Ellis said.
So far, the latest review of options for the bridge's future has been funded with $500,000 originally reserved for the project in the 2020 mobility bond spending plan. An Austin Public Works Department spokesperson said up to $1.8 million in bond dollars could be used for initial design services.
Next steps in the project's preliminary phase involve several months of public engagement and further council briefings that will wrap up next fall. The city projected design work could continue through early 2025, followed by construction and a 2027 opening. However, additional funding is needed before any construction kicks off.
Ellis said movement on project planning is coming at a good time as the makeup of Zilker Park itself remains under review. On Nov. 15, the city released a draft version of the Zilker Park Vision Plan—a road map for the park's restoration and use—and will be soliciting public feedback on the comprehensive planning document into next year.
"This is great timing where it’s at the forefront of everyone’s mind. There’s already a lot of public engagement and awareness about this conversation, so I’m hoping you’ll get a good balance of viewpoints from people who want to access the park and to figure out what’s going to happen with the bridge," Ellis said.