Taming the 12-Lane Monster

Task Force Finalizing Plan to Limit Environmental Damage From Aquifer Freeway

The ATS wants to shoot traffic from this massive US 290/Loop 360 Interchange through Oak Hill
photograph by Jana Birchum
Oak Hill restaurant owner Rocky Hernandez fears that it will knock him out of a livelihood. Convict Hill resident Greg Erwin says, "They've written our neighborhood off." But, like it or not, next week Oak Hill business owners and residents will have to choose between two versions of a giant freeway slated to drive though the heart of their community.

One proposal for US290, designed by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), would put six lanes of elevated freeway and six lanes of frontage roads on a 350-foot-wide corridor through Oak Hill to RM1826. But a new version proposed by the US290 Task Force -- a 15-member group composed of Austin Transportation Study (ATS) members, Oak Hill residents, and leaders of the business, government and environmental communities -- would eliminate at least two lanes of frontage road and considerably narrow the freeway corridor.

Can Barton Springs and the community of Oak Hill survive the US290 freeway? Environmentalists posed that question last year when they fought extension of the freeway from Loop 360 westward over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone and through the center of Oak Hill. In September, 1995, the ATS voted to fund the freeway as far west as Williamson Creek, despite environmentalists' claims that TxDOT water quality controls are inadequate to protect the aquifer.

Some Oak Hill residents and businesses also argued that extending the 12-lane freeway further, to barrel past Williamson Creek and straight through Oak Hill, would drive a wedge through their community. State Representative Sherri Greenberg persuaded the ATS to halt further acquisition of right-of-way west of Williamson Creek while a task force that she chairs explored options for improving water quality controls and mitigating the impact of the freeway on Oak Hill. After a year of work, Greenberg's US290 Task Force is now preparing a final list of recommendations to submit to the ATS early next year. (Oak Hill residents have a chance to comment on the recommendations next Wednesday, Dec. 18, at a 6pm meeting at Covington Middle School, 3700 Convict Hill Rd.).

Basham's Alternative Bashed

Last spring, Oak Hill landscape architect Gary Basham and Austin architect Sinclair Black came up with a design to take some of the pressure off of Oak Hill by diverting the freeway's through-lanes around the community on the north, between Williamson Creek and the Motorola plant. The plan would have left the existing US290 lanes to serve local business access in Oak Hill, eliminated all elevated lanes, and preserved numerous old oak trees along Williamson Creek that would be destroyed under the TxDOT plan. However, Motorola officials declined, politely citing the potential interference of freeway vibrations with sensitive factory operations, rather than dwelling on the obvious fact that the noisy and exhaust fume-belching freeway wasn't particularly welcome in their front yard, either.

Next, Basham and Black came up with plans to get the ugly thing out of sight by burying the freeway lanes rather than raising them 25 feet into the air on pedestals like a deified monument to urban sprawl. Their plan would have depressed the through lanes below ground level, with local access lanes constructed on ground level -- either directly overhead or to the sides -- which would allow for ground-level streets over the freeway to connect the two sides of Oak Hill. However, at a November 15 task force meeting, Richard Hamner, aide to Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, nixed both plans. (Barrientos, chair of the ATS, has been pushing the US290 freeway for years, and Hamner serves as his proxy on the task force.) Hamner argued that putting freeway lanes underground would double construction costs, eliminating any chance of TxDOT funding the project. Black responded that an examination of the real costs shows elevated freeways to be economically disastrous to communities because the "hostile environment" they create eliminates businesses. He pointed to the junkyard and trailer storage adjacent to I-35 near downtown as typical of the disuse of land near elevated freeways. "By depressing the freeway," said Black, "you would create an environment where people can actually be."

"Cost is no reason to shut down the depressed freeway option," added Sierra Club representative Dick Kallerman, "We have systematically destroyed our cities because we couldn't afford to do the right thing."

A couple of Oak Hill residents at the meeting suggested that added costs for the depressed option could be met by making the section a toll road, as TxDOT plans to do with new roads in other parts of the city. However, environmentalist videographer Tim Jones, who is also a member of the city council's environmental advisory board, and Save Barton Creek Association representative Craig Smith sided with Hamner, primarily because they fear the potential damage that tunneling below ground level might do to nearby Williamson Creek and the Edwards Aquifer. (A recently completed segment of US290 between South First and Congress actually rerouted natural stormwater drainage from West Bouldin Creek to East Bouldin Creek, subjecting residents along the latter to the prospect that increased stream-bed erosion could eventually eat into their property or even undermine their houses.) In the end, a round-table poll of the US290 Task Force showed only Kallerman and Basham favoring the depressed option.

Even so, the task force did come up with some alternatives to TxDOT's design. The group recommends placing the elevated through-lanes on columns, similar to the Research Boulevard section of US183, rather than on a solid-wall base. This would somewhat reduce the barrier effect by at least allowing Oak Hill residents on the two sides of the freeway to wave to each other underneath, and it would narrow the width of the corridor, since columns would allow the ground-level local access roads to be partially "tucked under" the elevated through-lanes. Corridor width would be further narrowed by eliminating two of the six proposed access lanes. Another major change would eliminate a flyover ramp at the US290/ SH71 interchange (the Oak Hill "Y"). The flyover would have put headlights and noisy wheel whine into the backyards of the Convict Hill neighborhood, which is perched on a bluff next to the freeway.

Another possible option is to eliminate two of the six proposed through-lanes. But this would be contingent on a TxDOT traffic study showing that they are not needed, and environmentalists predict that you're about as likely to hear TxDOT saying freeway lanes aren't needed as you are to see Bill Clinton sporting a pencil-thin mustache.

Hobson's Choice

Somewhat lost in the shuffle of options was the question as to why the massive freeway has to be extended through Oak Hill in the first place. At an earlier task force meeting, Kallerman had suggested that it was a bit ridiculous to have to choose between disrupting the watershed or driving a wedge through the community just to keep from inconveniencing some drivers. But Hamner has made it clear that increasing freeway capacity to meet ATS traffic projections takes precedence over other concerns.

Environmentalists further predict that the freeway will fuel so much development over the Edwards Aquifer and its contributing zone that it will imperil water quality in the aquifer and Barton Springs. To alleviate environmentalists' fears, Greenberg appointed a technical advisory subcommittee earlier this year to recommend controls needed to protect the aquifer. The subcommittee includes Barbara Mahler, who helped write the petition to list the Barton Springs Salamander as an endangered species, Lisa O'Donnell of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Michael Barrett of the Center for Research in Water Resources, Nico Hauwert of the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, Patrick Hartigan of Austin's Drainage Utility Department, and other individuals who have in recent years been in the forefront in studying and protecting the aquifer and springs.

At a meeting earlier this year, Hauwert told the subcommittee, "It hasn't been demonstrated anywhere that I know of that it's possible to build on a karst aquifer and not impact the water underneath." He described how heavy siltation from construction over the aquifer has already clogged municipal wells in Sunset Valley so badly that it burned out a water pump. He also related how a leaking gasoline tank contaminated a well near US290. "It's going to be hard to keep gasoline off the aquifer recharge zone as more and more people live on it," Hauwert predicted.

Hartigan, meanwhile, reported that current controls have no measurable goals or standards for stormwater runoff into Barton Creek, which is the largest watershed entering Town Lake. "If the Barton Creek Watershed is downgraded significantly, so is the Town Lake drinking water supply," he said. "TxDOT water ponds are designed on the simple principle of capturing and filtering out highway pollution from the first one-half inch of rain," he said, but no monitoring standards guarantee their effectiveness, and nutrients that stimulate algae production pass through unfiltered.

"Other areas like Portland, Oregon are first deciding how much pollution that they are willing to allow, and then designing for that," Hartigan said. "You can't just have a simple idea of treating the first half inch of highway runoff. You have to deal with the whole watershed."

TxDOT v. Environmentalists

But even as the technical subcommittee sought to establish new standards for controls, disagreements broke out between the environmentalists and two TxDOT representatives on the subcommittee about TxDOT's handling of controls that are already in place.

A major point of contention concerned the continuing runoff of silt-laden stormwater into Barton Creek from TxDOT construction at the US290/Loop 360 interchange. Environmentalists believe that the silt enters the aquifer through faults in Barton Creek, and emerges from Barton Springs three miles downstream, damaging the environment of the Barton Springs Salamander. They point to the fact that in the past two years, increasingly turbid water emerging from the springs reduces visibility in Barton Pool to less than four feet within about 14 hours after a rainfall in the Barton Creek watershed. In June and July, O'Donnell and Hauwert wrote to TxDOT engineer Robert Stuard (who is also a US290 Task Force subcommittee member) complaining that TxDOT was not doing enough to control silt erosion closer to its source at construction sites, and was also leaving piles of construction debris near the creek without containment devices.

On Nov.1, a large amount of oil from an unknown source was discovered in a hazardous material trap next to the Loop 360/US 290 interchange. A rainfall a few days later washed some oil from storm sewers into a tributary of Barton Creek before it could be removed
photograph by Jana Birchum
In an indignant response to Hauwert, Stuard wrote that the requested silt controls were impractical, and complained that "the grossly disproportionate amounts of time we allocate to US290 environmental aspects have been at the sacrifice of many of the other projects in the Austin TxDOT District." Stuard further challenged critics to provide "proof that can withstand academic scrutiny" of water quality declining as a result of the US290 projects.

Plenty of videotape footage documents muddy water running from TxDOT water quality ponds into tributaries of Barton Creek, but TxDOT officials say that no one can prove the silt comes from its construction sites as opposed to commercial sites that drain into the same ponds. The only evidence that would meet the standard of proof demanded by Stuard would be for eroding highway construction silt to be tagged in such a way that it can later be identified emerging from Barton Springs.

Meanwhile, some say things could have been much worse for Barton Springs were it not for last year's low rainfall limiting the amount of construction-related erosion. And environmentalists breathed a sigh of relief when TxDOT recently completed the first stage of revegetating denuded slopes at the US290/Loop 360 interchange.

In spite of the spats on the technical advisory committee, TxDOT is showing some major improvements in its water quality controls. The newest US290 water detention pond at Industrial Oaks Boulevard will be a "wet pond," which is expected to perform much better than the "dry ponds" currently in use. TxDOT also pledges to better phase future projects so as to minimize erosion and trap runoff, and environmentalists give the highway department high marks for its slope revegetation efforts.

A preliminary list of task force recommendations (see sidebar) emphasizes the need for TxDOT to implement a permanent monitoring and maintenance program for its water quality ponds, to be headed by a water quality specialist. To show it is serious about water quality, TxDOT would also need to budget for long-term monitoring and maintenance of detention ponds from the beginning on all new highway projects in sensitive areas. The task force also recommends setting measurable standards for stormwater runoff, more studies to monitor effectiveness of existing ponds, and retrofitting of ponds that fail to meet the standards, as well as building new ponds on parts of MoPac and Loop 360 where no water quality protection exists.

The importance of the latter was underlined on Nov. 1 when a large amount of oil from an unknown source was discovered in a hazardous material trap next to the Loop 360/US290 interchange. TxDOT contractors pumped 250 gallons of water mixed with oil from the trap, and rainfall a few days later washed more oil from storm sewers into a tributary of Barton Creek before it could be removed. The potential remains for oil or chemicals from a truck spill to enter the creek where no hazardous material traps exist near the Loop 360 bridge over Barton Creek.

Strategic Input

From its inception, the US290 Task Force confronted Austin's environmental community with a recurring, classic dilemma: Do you fight to the bitter end against the establishment growth machine that seeks to maximize impervious cover over the Edwards Aquifer and its contributing zone, or do you try to work with authorities to limit the damage?

On one side are environmentalists like Sierra Club chair Steve Beers who predict that the real damage to the aquifer will not come directly from US290 runoff, but from the massive development that the freeway will open up. According to this view, no amount of water quality technology can protect the aquifer and Barton Springs from this buildout over the contributing zone, where 85% of the water that recharges the aquifer enters streams. There are no stormwater quality controls in this zone, even for highways. Beers points to a recent article in the Journal of the American Planning Association, which concludes that degradation of aquifers begins at impervious cover levels of 10-20%. Questionable technological fixes like detention and filtration ponds are no substitute for limits on impervious cover, says Beers, a fact that the Environmental Impact Statement on US290 ignores by refusing to acknowledge that the freeway will pave the way for sprawling development.

On the other hand, environmentalists like Tim Jones argue that US290 is a done deal and enviros have to fight for whatever water protection controls that they can get.

There appears to be little doubt that the task force recommendations would provide some major safeguards for the aquifer. What is less certain is whether the ATS and TxDOT will agree to implement them. Serious water quality controls increase highway construction costs and diminish developer profits, eliminating much of the economic incentive for development to occur in the first place. Past experience shows that the true cost of development is more likely to be borne by residents in the form of increased environmental degradation. So it isn't likely that the US290 Task Force's year of hard work is going to guarantee a Barton Springs eternal. Still, changes stemming from the efforts of these citizens could certainly buy the springs a few more years. And who knows what wondrous new technological fixes for environmental ills may await us in the future?

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