Transportation agencies in Central Texas have long had their eyes on the Y at Oak Hill—where Hwy. 290 and Hwy. 71 intersect—a point of frequent congestion for Austin drivers. A planned solution, the Oak Hill Parkway project, is set to begin work by late 2020.
The area has been included on the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s long-range transportation plan for over 25 years, and as far back as 1988, Texas Department of Transportation was conducting environmental research into the area with a focus on potential improvements to give South Austin commuters traffic relief. TxDOT began hosting sessions for public input on a project design in 2012, and last year an official design for Oak Hill Parkway was chosen.
The plan has a goal to accommodate traffic projections through the year 2040. Oak Hill Parkway should add breathing room to the 64th most congested roadway in Texas—according to the Texas Transportation Institute—and prepare for an even greater influx of traffic as more development takes place on Hwy. 290 west of the Y toward Dripping Springs.
The proposed solution is not without its critics, however. Complaints have gained increased visibility in recent months, with multiple lawsuits filed against TxDOT and other entities associated with the project this summer, citing the project’s size and potential environmental impacts as reasons to find an alternative plan. Although the lawsuits are still pending, TxDOT is preparing to move forward on the plan selected last year.
‘A long time coming’
“[Oak Hill Parkway] is a long time coming,” TxDOT spokesperson Bradley Wheelis said of the project. “Nobody is going to argue that there is not gridlock at the Y in Oak Hill. There have been temporary fixes, and we’ve outgrown those because that area is exploding with development.”
TxDOT’s official schematic design for the project was selected in May 2018. It features expansions along 6 miles of Hwy. 290, with three main lanes and two to three frontage road lanes in both directions. The plans also show an elevated overpass for the main lanes over William Cannon Drive and flyovers to create nonstop access between Hwy. 290 and Hwy. 71 where there are currently traffic lights. One mile of Hwy. 71 will also be expanded, according to TxDOT. Additionally, upstream water features would be constructed to mitigate the potential for flooding.
Although tolling was considered in earlier schematic options, the highway will be non-tolled.
Christiana Astarita, project manager for the Oak Hill Parkway Project, said she believes most commuters will approve of the project once it is underway.
“I hope that motorists will see improvements pretty soon after we get started with this project,” Astarita said. “I anticipate that they’ll see a lot of relief in their daily commute. Gridlock will become less and less as we move further into the project.”
In late July, Save Our Springs Alliance, an Austin-based environmental advocacy group, filed suit against TxDOT and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, citing concerns about potential impacts to two species of endangered salamander that are found in nearby Williamson Creek.
Shortly thereafter, a number of Oak Hill-area advocacy groups also filed suit—this time, against TxDOT and CAMPO—claiming insufficient attention to environmental concerns and that changes had been made to the proposal since the review was completed in late 2018. The plaintiffs also pointed to the potential for construction delays if excavation associated with the project runs into caves, which are common in the area.
Kelly Davis, a staff attorney for Save Our Springs Alliance, told Community Impact Newspaper a primary concern for her organization was the amount of excavation TxDOT’s proposal would require, delving into limestone above the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone.
Save Oak Hill, one of the groups that filed suit against TxDOT and CAMPO in July and which was formed by Oak Hill residents whose concerns including the protection of Heritage Oak trees in the area, has publicized an alternate plan called Livable Oak Hill, which is supported by Save Our Springs Alliance and similar groups.
Designed by urban planner Daniel Alvarado, Livable Oak Hill is a six-lane, grade-level proposition. Save Oak Hill believes it provides more connectivity to the region and improves access to existing businesses.
“We believe it could actually address a lot of TxDOT’s goals, but it’s far less intrusive into the space than the TxDOT proposal,” Alvarado said.
Both Alvarado and Save Oak Hill organizer Alan Watts say the Livable Oak Hill plan is just a conception of what a more “contact-sensitive,” or environmentally conscious, design could be like. It is not a formally vetted design, although Watts has said Save Oak Hill plans to conduct a feasibility study for its proposal.
While TxDOT has said its own proposal is contact-sensitive—a factor incorporated at the urging of community organizations including Fix 290 and the city of Austin—Watts said he disagrees. He said he believes TxDOT adopted the name “Oak Hill Parkway” after Fix 290’s 2006 proposal of a contact-sensitive parkway design.
“It’s strange that they chose that name, like to soften the blow,” Watts said, “Like, ‘Look, you get a parkway!’ But it’s in name only.”
Resident Beki Halpin, who is associated with Fix 290, agreed.
“You can call a pig a unicorn, but it’s still a pig,” Halpin said.
Other residents and area commuters, however, are ready to see change now, and say they view these groups as a vocal minority. Area resident Rick Perkins said he fully supports TxDOT’s plan, and that he believes it will reduce congestion and idling emissions and diminish runoff into Williamson and Barton creeks.
“These are very important issues that cannot be taken lightly, and the removal or destruction of two dozen trees are a worthy tradeoff,” Perkins said.
Fellow community member Jack Wilkerson also spoke in support of TxDOT’s plan and said he does not think Save Oak Hill’s alternative does enough to address traffic issues at the Y.
“[Hwy.] 290 needs massive expansion to prevent gridlock stemming from new development in Dripping Springs and Bee Cave,” Wilkerson said. “I can’t see how a surface-level boulevard is going to fix any existing traffic problems, much less any future problems.”
Perkins, Wilkerson and others like them are likely to get their wish. In August, following the lawsuits by Save Our Springs and the other groups, TxDOT announced that an environmental re-evaluation had been completed and found that “no substantial changes” had occurred “that would substantially impact the quality of the human or natural environment.” The decision of the original environmental study holds.
TxDOT declined to comment on any pending litigation, but Wheelis confirmed that TxDOT plans to move ahead based on the agency’s timeline.
“To accommodate the traffic in 2040, we’ve got to increase mobility,” Wheelis said. “With these improvements, you’re not only going to have far less congestion; you improve mobility, and you improve safety as well, and that’s good for everybody.”
The next step in the project is for TxDOT to execute a design-build contract, which Wheelis said will occur in mid-2020.
Once a company’s contract bid has been accepted, construction can begin. Astarita projects this will occur around November 2020.
During construction, Astarita said TxDOT would be conscious of effects on commuters, primarily sticking to nighttime closures and maintaining “robust public information outreach” on project elements that would affect commutes.
“We’re trying our best to not make conditions any worse than they are now,” Astarita said of traffic during the construction process.
Meanwhile, Wheelis said TxDOT is also moving forward with a feasibility study for additional improvements to the section of West Hwy. 290 between the Y at Oak Hill and Dripping Springs.
“We’ll be taking input and trying to figure out options to improve that stretch of highway as well,” Wheelis said. “Every time we do a project in Austin, we’re thinking ahead on how that project can connect to the next project, because ultimately people are not just going to drive in Oak Hill. They’re going somewhere, and they’re coming from somewhere.”