Opinion: Oak Hill Road Plan Is Taxpayer Abuse

The argument against TxDOT's plan for a freeway flyover at the intersection of U.S. 290 and Texas 71

Opinion: Oak Hill Road Plan Is Taxpayer Abuse

By the time you read these words, a federal judge will have ruled on whether the Texas Department of Transportation can make the historic community of Oak Hill into roadkill.

Since it seems like forever ago, the "Y" intersection of U.S. 290 and Texas 71 in Southwest Austin has been slated to become a freeway flyover. Most everyone who drives on U.S. 290 West favors such a project – that is, until they learn the specifics of this wasteful plan:

• Most of a decade of traffic congestion, due to unnecessary construction chaos

• Most of a billion dollars burned on just 4 miles of road

• A mile of double-decked freeway sending noise and blight deep into neighborhoods

• Bulldozing more than 200 heritage trees

• Digging 30 feet down through limestone rock, above the aquifer that feeds Barton Springs

• Doubling pavement in an environmentally sensitive location

• Losing a potential greenbelt on Williamson Creek

• A new concrete plant in residential neighborhoods

• Historic buildings overshadowed by a 12-lane wide, elevated freeway

Of course, we need a new road, but this is a little like dynamiting your home to get rid of cockroaches.

Common sense says it's unreasonable to destroy an irreplaceable natural heritage, spend most of a billion dollars, divide a community, and risk a public water supply if there's any alternative available that can do the job at less cost. In this case there clearly is.

Since 2005, Southwest Austin residents under a banner of "Fix 290" have asked for a ground-level version of a new U.S. 290 freeway that can serve traffic needs without harming the local community. The U.S. 290 freeway was originally supposed to be all on the ground level, in TxDOT plans first approved in 1988. TxDOT now wants all the freeway mainlanes in the air or below ground.

Six lanes in the air or below ground don't add any vehicle moving capacity. This was purely a gift to contractors and a theft from taxpayers.

While the height of the project was changed, the proposed width never changed from the 1988 plan – 12 lanes. This is six freeway lanes, with six lanes of frontage roads – also known as "feeder," "service," or "access" roads. The frontage roads add only about 10% more capacity to the proposed freeway, so they are an inefficient use of space.

For a mile-long floodplain of Williamson Creek, the frontage road forces removal of the heritage trees (100- to 300-year-old oaks, sycamores, and other hardwoods).

A citizen group commissioned a "Livable Oak Hill" design in 2018 (saveoakhill.org/livable-oak-hill), which proposes a nearby boulevard less than a hundred yards further north, instead of a frontage road, to save the trees and Williamson Creek.

This boulevard plan would supply a pedestrian- and transit-friendly alternative near the new freeway, plus allow for a new greenbelt park on Williamson Creek.

The Fix 290 group back in 2005 had asked for a "parkway," defined as "a freeway without frontage roads," for this 1-mile section parallel to Williamson Creek.

A genuine parkway option is possible. TxDOT even built one – State Highway 45 Southwest. This freeway without frontage roads, all built on ground level through nature preserves, cost only $109 million to build nearly 4 miles.

While a genuine parkway for Oak Hill would be different in particulars – there will be more utility relocations, and the area of new construction a bit longer than SH 45 SW at about 5 miles long – this real-life example tells us there's potential to save as much as $500 million, plus a lot of trees and time (beloved Barton Springs too!).

If you can support our vision, please visit our website (oakhillneighbors.org) and join us to send a message to the Texas transportation overlords.

Recently retired from operating her own ecotourism company, Carol Cespedes, of Fix 290 Coalition, is a 27-year resident of Oak Hill. She is a board member of the Oak Hill Association of Neighborhoods and the moderator of Oak Hill Neighbors, representing residents living near the Y of Highways 290 and 71.

Stephen Beers, of Save Barton Creek Association, is a board member of SBCA; a writer, editor, and researcher; and more than 40-year Austin resident.

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Save Barton Creek Association, Fix 290 Coalition, Oak Hill, TxDOT

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