Residents offer feedback on long-term solution; official says short-term fixes are 'slightly delayed'
Slowing to a halt at the intersection of West Hwy. 290 and Hwy. 71 is a regular occurrence for many Southwest Austinites who drive through the Y at Oak Hill at peak hours. The first step in a multiyear effort seeking ways to alleviate congestion problems is the Oak Hill Parkway, an environmental study that will investigate potential effects of possible transportation projects on Hwy. 290.
The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority and Texas Department of Transportation plan to unveil preliminary design ideas for the roadways during the coming months. Workshops to gauge community interest and priorities started this year, said Steve Pustelnyk, Mobility Authority director of communications.
"Now that we've got all this input, we're going to start putting on paper some of the different ways that we might approach this project," Pustelnyk said.
At an open house planned for 6-8 p.m. May 23 at Clint Small Middle School, the Mobility Authority plans to present mockups of what could be the future of the Y. TxDOT is drawing up preliminary schematics, TxDOT Deputy District Engineer Terry McCoy said.
"We recognize that there are a lot of congestion problems out there today," he said. "We recognize that the ultimate [Y at Oak Hill] project is a few years out, and we hope that the interim improvements we're working on will help relieve traffic congestion."
Authority seeks feedback
Introduced in October, the parkway is now in the public engagement phase, which started early this year and will continue through 2015. Authorities will develop the environmental study and hold a public hearing in 2015.
Melissa Hurst, Mobility Authority senior communications and marketing specialist, said the organization is compiling comments from community meetings.
"Right now this schedule puts us at [releasing] our findings in 2016," she said. "Unfortunately, due to the nature of these studies, we can't narrow [timing] down, but that's what we anticipate."
After that, the Mobility Authority expects Federal Highway Administration officials to decide whether to award it a Finding Of No Significant Impact, or FONSI, meaning the project is approved and work on the long-term solution can begin.
Elements under consideration
Community suggestions so far have included preserving local oak trees to maintain rural character; conducting surveys to determine trees' locations and ages; adding native plants; preserving landmarks; adding trails, sidewalks and crosswalks; adding bridges over Hwy. 290 at major intersections; and not adding signals or frontage roads along Hwy. 290.
"We're talking about the full environment. Everything—the people, the buildings, the cemeteries," Pustelnyk said. "Today, unlike 20 years ago, we try to do integrated transportation where we look at all of the ways people move and make sure that the project is coordinated and accommodates all modes of transportation."
At a workshop in March, Oak Hill Trails Association member Rick Perkins encouraged incorporating multiuse trails.
"[Adding trails] would increase neighborhood connectivity. It promotes exercise and health for kids as well as adults, and also from a commuter point of view, eventually the trails would support the transportation corridors and help people actually go to work by bike," he said.
Bike and pedestrian paths are important to resident Carol Cespedes, South Windmill Run Neighborhood Association board member and Austin Community College Pinnacle advisory committee member. She said some ACC students run across the highways to get to class.
"As a community, we need to [ensure] that there are safe pedestrian connections between the neighborhoods and the shopping centers and ACC," she said.
History and concerns
While the parkway is picking up speed, the need for change is nothing new, resident Bruce Melton said.
"There's enormous congestion at the Y," he said. "We've been waiting 20 years to get something done about it."
Melton is a member of the Fix290 Coalition, an organization that founding member Cespedes said has been advocating for turning Hwy. 290 into a parkway—specifically an on-the-ground freeway without signals or tolls—since about 2005 in response to an earlier TxDOT plan for an elevated toll road. Supporters of Fix290 do not want to see an elevated road, Melton said, adding he is concerned that as a tolling authority, the Mobility Authority might not give non-tolling options such as the Fix290 plan a chance.
Environmental studies have a shelf life of three years. Pustelnyk said in the past, TxDOT's environmental study became outdated, funding was not secured and transportation projects were delayed. The study is being funded with federal and state dollars, Pustelnyk added.
"It wasn't until just now, when [the Mobility Authority] took a role in the project, where we clearly knew we were going to have the money because we can sell bonds and do it as a potential toll road, and we really stepped back and said we're going to do everything possible to find an acceptable solution to the community," Pustelnyk said.
Congestion at the Y causes issues for the business community, such as delaying employees' commutes, said Beth Ann Ray, Austin Chamber of Commerce vice president of regional infrastructure. In March, the chamber encouraged businesses to tell officials that they would pay increased taxes or fees to fund projects addressing congestion, Ray said.
"The chamber has been a longtime proponent of addressing the bottleneck that you get at the Y at Oak Hill," she said. "We'll continue to advocate on [the parkway's] behalf until we get to the day where it's open and we're driving on it."
More information about the project is available at www.oakhillparkway.com.