The Austin Chronicle

Over a Troubled Bridge

Neighborhoods Battle Plan to Widen Lamar Bridge

October 11, 1996, News

It was a classic traffic engineer's presentation. When consultants hired by the city's Department of Public Works and Transportation outlined options for widening the Lamar Bridge over Town Lake at a public hearing on September 10, their arguments rumbled along with the relentless logic of a bulldozer. Peak-hour traffic on the bridge causes unacceptable delays for motorists, said the engineers, and it will get worse as traffic volume on Lamar increases 48% by 2020. Reducing motorist's delays would save nearly $8 million a year, and slow the decline of the city's air quality, the engineers claimed, in spite of the additional 22,000 cars per day a widened bridge would attract.

After the half-hour presentation, the engineers dismissed the audience with instructions to make any comments they wished -- just don't take more than an hour -- and a stenographer hired for the occasion will put them on the record. But the audience wasn't buying it. An estimated 100 citizens, many representing neighborhood associations in south and west Austin, insisted that the engineers remain at the podium, and proceeded to grill them with questions for the next hour. It was obvious that a majority of the audience saw the engineers' arguments as Orwellian logic based on self-fulfilling traffic projection models left over from the glory days of the Petroleum Age that now fly in the face of common sense goals for preserving the inner city. When Public Works Transportation Manager David Girard claimed that an expanded Lamar Bridge would "provide the needed infrastructure for a compact city," it set some in the audience to wondering if Girard aspired to being a stand-up comedian.

"How can you have a compact city with increased widening of roadways and severing of neighborhoods?" demanded one irate resident.

"The only group in Central Texas dim-witted enough to buy that idea is the editorial board of the American-Statesman," quipped Sinclair Black, a local architect who has been a leader in the movement to revitalize downtown and curb urban sprawl.

The September 10 hearing was the latest skirmish in what is shaping up to be a major battle at the bridge, pitting road-building interests against neighborhood associations, compact city advocates, and historic preservationists. The Lamar Bridge has long been recognized as a major barrier to cyclists and pedestrians because of its dangerously narrow sidewalks. In 1994 the city won federal funding of $953,000 to build a pedestrian bridge. However, construction of the foot bridge has been delayed, pending a decision on whether to widen vehicular lanes as well.

Public Works points out that Austin voters approved the expansion of Lamar Bridge from four to six traffic lanes, along with dozens of other road projects, in a 1984 bond election. Opponents of bridge expansion reply that the city's goals have since changed from providing every road needed to meet projected traffic demands to preserving neighborhoods and encouraging alternative transportation modes. They fear that Public Works is trying to tie construction of a pedestrian bridge to vehicular lane expansion, and they say that the city may lose its federal funding if it waits later than September, 1997 to begin building the pedestrian bridge. They also suspect that Austin lost out to other Texas cities this year in competition for more bike/pedestrian funding because of Public Works' delays in using the money already awarded. To further complicate matters, the 54-year-old bridge is listed in the National Registry of Historical Places, bringing historical preservationists into the battle against bridge expansion, and calling into question the project's eligibility for federal funds. (See below).

In 1994, Councilmember Jackie Goodman pushed through City Council a resolution requiring that Public Works consider a no-widening option in its engineering study, and giving the council final say on whether or not to widen the bridge. Last April, then-Councilmember Max Nofziger failed in an attempt to get an early council commitment to building the pedestrian bridge without the added car lanes. Instead, Public Works was allowed to finish a $340,000 study of seven options for the bridge that were ultimately presented at the Sept. 10 meeting. Option One provides for no widening of the present bridge, and construction of a separate $2.6 million pedestrian bridge to the west. The other six options (ranging in price from $8 million to $10.4 million) all involve variations of widening Lamar Bridge to six lanes, with a pedestrian bridge either attached or built separately.

Public Works predicted city council action on the bridge no earlier than January, but in a surprise move last week, Goodman called for a public hearing on the bridge to be held as early as October 24 at the regular council meeting. Goodman's complaint is that the Sept. 10 meeting didn't allow for complete and open discussion, and she wants to assure that a public forum take place well in advance of council consideration of the issue, set for next year.

Though historical preservation is important to many opponents of bridge widening, most see the fundamental issue as defense of the inner city itself. "Widening the bridge is a key link to opening up Lamar as a huge multi-lane crosstown arterial," says Michael Wolszon, president of the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association. "We think that widening Lamar will segregate neighborhoods in the same way I-35 isolates neighborhoods to the east from the rest of Austin."

Wolszon contends that Public Works has had its eye on widening South Lamar for a decade, but neighborhood and business opposition has forced the traffic planners to adopt a "piece-meal approach," whereby they widen one intersection at a time, thereby gradually opening up greater traffic volumes that create "bouncing bottlenecks" to justify widening the next section. He recalls that when Public Works began widening Lamar to six lanes between Barton Springs Road and Riverside Drive a few years ago, city engineers assured neighborhoods that the Lamar Bridge could not be widened because of its historical designation. But Wolszon fears that the upcoming completion of the US290 freeway (which goes from Oak Hill to Bergstrom via Ben White) is pushing traffic planners into a hurry-up mode to widen the bridge as the freeway begins to dump heavy loads of traffic onto Lamar from rapid development to the southwest.

"When we look at the Ben White/Lamar intersection, we see eight lanes of traffic aimed straight at the heart of our neighborhoods," says Wolszon. "If we run another MoPac up and down Lamar, maybe [Freeport-McMoRan CEO] Jim Bob Moffett wouldn't have to wait on traffic on his way to buy legislators, but it's not in the city's best interests to let inner-city neighborhoods deteriorate."

Jeffrey Jack, vice president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council (ANC), warns that widening Lamar Bridge will also encourage more commuters to exit from MoPac onto Barton Springs Road in order to get downtown via Lamar. The result, says Jack, will be more traffic splitting apart Zilker Park, and new pressures on widening Barton Springs Road. "Virtually no other city of Austin's size has natural pristine settings in its inner core like Zilker Park and Town Lake," adds Tom Larkin, Chair of the South Central Neighborhood Association. "The park and lake settings are just not conducive to more freeway-like traffic."

Former Sierra Club Chair Dick Kallerman agrees that the Town Lake Trail is Austin's heart and social promenade, a place where people can greet each other on a ground level. "We need pedestrian-friendly connections between Town Lake, the surrounding neighborhoods and downtown," says Kallerman, "not more projects that focus primarily on guiding more automobile traffic at higher speeds through these areas."

West Austin residents fear that widening the bridge will increase pressure to widen North Lamar, and they also see a threat to the mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly corridor that is developing along West Sixth from downtown to Clarksville and up Lamar northward from Sixth. Plans for the corridor include construction of a 120-unit condominium complex at Ninth and Lamar, the first downtown housing to be built in 20 years. David Dobbs, executive director of Texas Association for Public Transportation, believes that the area between West Fifth and Town Lake could also become a focus for new downtown residential development. The proposed Round Rock-to-San Antonio passenger rail, which has strong backing among Austin transportation leaders, would follow MoPac, then feed commuters into downtown from near the Amtrak station just west of Lamar along an existing rail line on Third Street. This commuter rail corridor, complete with a hike-and-bike trail, would provide a traffic-calmed magnet for residential development. What this compact-growth-friendly corridor doesn't need, says Dobbs, is a six-lane Lamar screaming through the middle of it.

In contrast to these compact city dreams, Public Works Project Manager Richard Kroger paints a somber picture of a traffic congestion nightmare on the bridge if it isn't expanded. Level of service is already at "F" during peak hours, says Kroger, which in traffic engineer lingo translates into average motorist delays of longer than 60 seconds from 7-9am and 4-6pm on weekdays. Public Works projections predict that traffic volume on the bridge will increase from the current 46,000 cars per day to 68,000 in 25 years. "If you add just a little more traffic to a Level of Service F, it gets a whole lot worse," says Kroger. "It gets worse faster and faster, the more traffic you add."

And would this congestion ordeal be enough to persuade some motorists to switch to transit? Not likely, says Kroger, noting that driving is simply too convenient for most commuters. He says that it takes him 12 minutes to make his seven-mile commute downtown by car, while it takes 47 minutes by bus. But what if commuter rail could bring him to work in the same time and without all the stress of congested driving? The bottom line, replies Kroger, is that Capital Metro only projects a 4% modal share for transit by 2020. "Traffic volumes are going to increase whether you widen Lamar or not," he adds.

Architect Kit Krankel disputes Kroger's assessment. "We're going to get the modal split we design for," says Krankel. "If we continue building roads, people won't have an incentive to change to transit. There's no reason we can't shoot for the modal split they have in Portland (where 40% of downtown workers commute by light rail); we have the same economy and demographics as they do."

Karen Akins, Chair of the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association, says that some improvements could smooth traffic flow on Lamar without a $10 million bridge widening. For instance, prohibiting left turns onto Riverside Drive from southbound Lamar during afternoon rush hour would reduce delays on the bridge caused by that signalized intersection. Architect Black favors straightening out Cesar Chavez and prohibiting left turns from it onto Lamar. This would increase Cesar Chavez's capacity for shuffling commuters between MoPac and downtown without using the Lamar Bridge, says Black. Other neighborhood leaders say that more could be done to shift traffic to bridges on South First and Congress Avenue, which carry only two-thirds of Lamar's peak hour traffic volumes.

A New Paradigm

Urban environmentalists say that traffic engineers with the narrow goal of moving cars faster have become de facto designers of our cities, destroying public spaces and the social fabric in the process. City Councilmembers Jackie Goodman and Daryl Slusher recently launched a new proposal called "Reweaving the Urban Fabric," that would create an Urban Design Team to rank traffic projects according to whether they support the long-term sustainability of urban quality of life. The traffic engineers' role would be relegated to providing technical execution of designs, rather than initiating road projects.

"First we need to establish a shared vision of what we want our city to be 20 years from now, and then the decision of what's right for Lamar Bridge will be clear," says the ANC's Jack. "Do we want a livable, sustainable community, or one based on past technology that looks like Los Angeles?"

The problem is that in Austin there are two competing visions, adds Jack. "A lot of people try to distance themselves from what they believe to be the urban problem with its crime and congestion, and they go out to their piece of Eden in the country or suburbs. On the other hand, the compact city idea is that you can have a high quality of life that creates stability and responsibility in an urban setting." Jack believes that the two visions could coexist if the region's leaders would provide adequate transit for suburban commuters instead of paving over the inner city to facilitate more cars. "We need to accommodate a wide variety of lifestyles," says Jack, "but we can't do it when one group's lifestyle is disastrous to another group."

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