Oak Hill Parkway “reluctantly” funded by City of Austin

Save Barton Creek Association continues to be concerned about TxDOT’s plan for the Oak Hill Parkway (reconstruction of US 290/SH 71 near the Oak Hill “Y”).

Recently, on January 31st, Austin’s city council voted 8 to 2 (with one member absent and not voting) to execute a construction agreement (MOU) with TxDOT and authorized $3.3 million in required local contribution towards the $500 million project. The Austin Monitor aptly reported that the “City reluctantly fulfills legal obligation.”

The MOU reflected some of the points SBCA made in an October letter to City Council and other SBCA proposals to further protect Williamson Creek and Barton Springs. We are grateful to City staff and leaders for their work on this agreement and for incorporating many many of SBCA’s suggestions. We see its passage as a a step in the right direction.

Unfortunately, the MOU didn’t address our biggest concerns– the scale of the project and the inclusion of excavation which imperil the environment. In other words, the project design remains deeply flawed.

SBCA has engaged a lawyer, Mr. Jeff Appel, who’s initial memo to us found “found significant areas of concern regarding how this NEPA process proceeded and the results thereof.” Mr. Appel continues to analyze the facts, but we were glad to see that he shared our concern over the fact that the NEPA process for this project was undertaken for an entirely different project– a toll road.

This fact is responsible for the overbuilt project before us.

The proposed project footprint continues as 12 lanes wide (six freeway lanes and six frontage road lanes), forcing removal of nearly 300 heritage trees. Of great concern to neighbors, there is over a mile of an elevated section that threatens substantial noise and visual impacts.

Further west along US 290, TxDOT proposes digging into  limestone rock to build a “depressed” section. This ‘Great Ditch of Oak Hill’ would be 2.65 miles long, averaging 25 feet deep and 150 feet wide.

This feature of TxDOT’s plan is SBCA’s greatest concern. In December, the drilling of a single geothermal well into the aquifer was enough to turn Barton Springs cloudy and close it to swimmers. Imagine what the much larger disturbances planned by TxDOT could do. The planned excavation would mine the aquifer contributing and recharge zones, removing 53 million cubic feet of earth and rubble.

It’s no wonder that 10 environmental and neighborhood organizations signed a letter in December in opposition to the project. And also no wonder that Austin City Council members showed discomfort with the project at the January 31st vote.

In December, the US 290 project received final environmental clearance from Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), the same agency that commissioned it. No surprises, except the timing of the announcement was late Friday afternoon before the Christmas holiday, which guaranteed little to no press coverage.

In what was being treated as mere formality — because an earlier tolled road plan was already approved — the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) voted to fund the Oak Hill Parkway project January 15th .

TxDOT has encountered several caves in its current work on the intersections of Mopac, the most significant cave on South Mopac at La Crosse. Given the karst limestone geology, we can expect such inevitable “surprises” occurring with an Oak Hill excavation too.

City council heard at their meeting from many concerned citizens about the project’s impact on the environment. The good news is that, on Mayor Pro-tem Tovo gave staff direction to stay engaged with TxDOT and community groups about the project’s design for further beneficial improvements.

SBCA continues to work for a better design to adequately safeguard a future for our Springs, and our other natural treasures.

For information on  legal issues with the TxDOT plan see here.

For an alternative that  respects the trees of Oak Hill, Williamson Creek, and Barton Springs, see here.