Travis County commissioners select emergency evacuation route out of Steiner Ranch after contentious process

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Travis County commissioners voted unanimously July 9 to select an evacuation route out of Steiner Ranch.

The chosen route—Route B—is a 900-foot gated connection between Flat Top Ranch Road and Montview Drive; it can be constructed for $980,000 and will have a capacity of 750 vehicles per hour.

The alternative, Route F, would have been a two-lane road connecting Flat Top Ranch Road and RM 620 and open to the public at all times. If chosen, it would have cost $7.2 million to construct and would have had a capacity of 1,500 vehicles per hour.

Two options

In 2011, wildfires destroyed several homes in the Steiner Ranch neighborhood. In response, county officials identified a need for an evacuation route and approved $2.7 million in certificates of obligation to evaluate, design and construct such a route.

County staff identified and analyzed more than 12 possible routes. After a year of evaluation that included open houses, a period of public comment and consultation with first responders, two options—Route B and Route F—remained.

Although county staff said they believe Route F is the better long-term solution, they recommended commissioners choose Route B because it is more cost effective.

Initially, county staff had planned to apply for grant funds from the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization to pay for Route F; however, CAMPO decided to funnel its grant funds to the Mobility35 Capital Express Project, which will revamp I-35.

Without the option of CAMPO funds, Route B is “a viable option that we can build quickly and affordably and within our budget,” Assistant Public Works Director David Greear said.

With the climate growing hotter and drier, action is critical, said Commissioner Brigid Shea, who represents Precinct 2, where Steiner Ranch is located.

“We know there’ll be more fires. It’s not a matter of if but when,” Shea said. “We have to do something, and Route B is something we can afford.”

A tough choice

More than a dozen residents from Steiner Ranch and the surrounding neighborhoods spoke on the issue at the July 9 meeting. Many others have provided public comment on the subject at meetings earlier this year.

“This process has been a frustrating one,” said Brian Thompto, the chairperson of the Steiner Ranch Neighborhood Association, who advocated for additional analysis.

While there is what Precinct 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty called a “very loud and very orchestrated” group of people advocating for Route B out of fear the alternative will become a widely used roadway through the development, some residents spoke out in favor in Route F, which they said would be a longer-term solution because of its higher capacity and would also avoid going through private property, as Route B will.

Residents also criticized the process, lamenting what they said was poor communication from the county and an outsized focus on Steiner Ranch at the expense of surrounding neighborhoods Montview and Hidden Valley, which will also be affected by the new route.

“Throughout this entire thing I’ve never received an email, a phone call, no notification whatsoever,” said Ryan Hering, who purchased property in the Montview neighborhood with plans to build a house. His lot would be affected by the building of Route B.

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt raised the idea that Steiner Ranch likely would not be built today because of the area’s inhospitable terrain.

“This has always been an incredible problematic area,” Eckhardt said, referencing the high risk for floods and wildfires as well as day-to-day traffic congestion.

“The Hill Country is such a special place. It is a place of isolated beauty,” she said. “And there are consequences and factors that come along with living in that isolated beauty.”

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Emma Freer
Emma Freer began covering Central Austin for Community Impact Newspaper in 2017. Her beat includes the Travis County Commissioners Court and local business news. She graduated from Columbia Journalism School in 2017.
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