The Austin Chronicle

Barton Springs Eternal

By Amy Smith, January 10, 2003, News

Even the construction workers must wonder if they're making a career out of Barton Springs Road. It was, after all, a long, long time ago -- 18 months to be exact -- when they began work on the much-ballyhooed "improvement" of a stretch of the narrow roadway between Lamar Boulevard and Robert E. Lee Road.

You remember Barton Springs Road -- the home of Restaurant Row and the gateway to Zilker Park? It's since become Restaurant Woe and the gateway to gridlock. The completion date of the road-widening project has been delayed again, this time a few more months, thanks to a construction snafu that will require ripping up newly laid asphalt to replace wastewater lines that the city says were improperly installed. Public works officials blame the error on the contractor, Ryan-O Excavating, and have imposed a $2,000-per-day penalty since Oct. 12 -- the project's most recently targeted and missed completion date. (Tom Ryan, of the excavating company, returned a Chronicle phone call but refused to comment.)

This time around, the $5.7 million headache is scheduled to be wrapped up by April. Maybe. "Our comfort level (for an April completion) is certainly lower than we would like it to be," acknowledged Peter Rieck, the city's public works director. On a brighter note: "It's not the worst project we've ever had, but it is a difficult project."

The city and the contractor have gone back and forth on the troubled sewer line since last spring, when inspectors said it fell short of city code. "The contractor twice attempted to correct the deficiencies, without being successful," Rieck said. Repair work is primarily needed on the north side of the street, where Jessie Street intersects with Barton Springs Road, near Romeo's restaurant. From there, portions of the new street will be torn up intermittently to Robert E. Lee, according to Rieck.

Romeo's management isn't happy about the prospect of several more months of construction. "I think it's horrible," said manager Yvette Bertheaud. "It's a sign of poor planning and bad business. This is something that affects so many people, not just the businesses."

By now, some business owners seem to have grown an extra layer of skin as a means of steeling themselves against the disruption. "What can I say?" asked Mike Young, co-owner of Chuy's. "When they say April, you and I both know that means next fall." Young estimates a 40-50% loss on annual net operating profits, which he attributes to the double whammy of a grim economy and the road construction. "None of the businesses on Barton Springs Road are doing well -- they're all holding on," he said.

Property owners and tenants also complain that even modest amounts of rainfall cause flooding problems on the street -- problems they say didn't exist before. Rieck, for his part, says the city hasn't been able to confirm that flooding has anything to do with the project. But at least one landowner says she's already connected the dots. "My concern," said Susan Toomey Frost, "is that there will surely be more than 11/2 inches of rain in the future, and if it's flooding now at such a low amount of rain, we're going to have big problems with a bigger downpour. I think the city needs to look at what is probably a faulty installation of the storm drainage system."

Of course, project proponents would prefer that folks keep their eye on the prize: a landscaped median, bicycle lanes, and wide sidewalks. "It's unfortunate that this has become so painful and difficult," said Rieck, "but when it's all over and done with I think our citizens will ultimately come to appreciate the improvements, in spite of the pain." Until then, we'll have to settle for more pain, gridlock, and dust.

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