Will TxDOT’s Plans for Loop 360 Leave Cyclists and Pedestrians in the Dust?
Bikin’ down the highway
In its current form, Capital of Texas Highway – Loop 360 – on Austin's western edge is hard to imagine being used by most pedestrians or nonathletic cyclists for either transportation or recreation. When not congested at rush hour, cars zip along the winding six-lane highway, where the posted speed is 60 mph. In the few locations where designated bike lanes do exist, they tend to be found in a narrow space between the middle and right turn lanes. Much of the time, the only bicycles one sees are the illustrations on the bright yellow bike-crossing signs.
The Texas Department of Transportation aims to change that as a part of its plans to upgrade Loop 360, which include new frontage roads, grade separations at most of the major intersections, and intelligent transportation systems, along with shared-use paths for pedestrians and cyclists. As that project moves along in its design and environmental review, those paths have come under scrutiny from active transportation advocates, as well as some of the neighbors that live near the highway, who wonder how many more bicyclists and pedestrians will want to use a trail that's only set 5 feet from the roadway, with minimal protection.
That's not to mention the lane widths, which at 10 feet won't match up with some expert recommendations. For example, the National Association of City Transportation Officials recommends that two-way bike lanes be 12 feet in width and only be reduced (to a minimum of 8 feet) in "constrained locations."
Why is the department appearing to shortchange non-auto travelers on Loop 360, which is no longer the scenic drive through the undeveloped hills it once was but now carries tens of thousands of Austinites to extensive and growing neighborhoods and employment centers? Some observers have speculated that TxDOT is pushing forward with this design to avoid alienating the adjacent property owners who have been effectively encroaching on its rights of way. TxDOT has long owned enough of the hillside property along Loop 360 to expand its width, so it seems odd that it would not want to take advantage of this opportunity to build higher-capacity facilities with a longer design life now that it has funding to do so.
Hard to Build in the Hills
TxDOT has pushed back on this allegation. It says that the area's topography is what presents the greatest obstacle to full-sized bike lanes. "The challenge along Loop 360 is the rolling terrain. While it appears that there is plenty of room, the terrain makes it challenging to meet the design requirements of bicycle and pedestrian facilities," a TxDOT spokesperson told the Chronicle. As for property owners encroaching on TxDOT land, the spokesperson said that's not an issue. "Except for the occasional misplaced fence or an unpermitted sign, there have not been encroachments onto the right of way. TxDOT does not anticipate encroachments moving forward."
Long stretches along the highway are indeed hilly, but a drive along the still-stunning 14-mile corridor reveals more than sporadic potential right-of-way encroachment, such as an area used for parking near Winding Ridge Boulevard (which parallels Loop 360 near Bull Creek) and a stretch facing the Davenport Village shopping center where Loop 360 meets Westlake Drive (one of the future grade-separated crossings where an overpass and ramps are to be built), where a trailer is currently parked. The stretch is also inundated with signs advertising properties for sale or lease, which sit nearly on top of the current roadway.
While TxDOT is the lead agency for the project, the city of Austin is helping to bankroll the shared-use paths through a $46 million contribution, a project included in the $720 million 2016 Mobility Bond program. The Austin Transportation Department's Laura Dierenfield, who leads its active transportation division, pointed out that lane widths can vary depending on the circumstances and said that the city will do its part to make the path as accessible and safe as possible. Currently, ATD is reviewing the TxDOT-proposed design to understand how the expansion can best fit within TxDOT's available space. "With respect to the 360 project, we are working with TxDOT to try to get the very best, most comfortable, connected, and least conflicting pathway design possible," Dierenfield said.
The project has already seen a number of delays and has been pushed back to a completion date in the late 2020s. From a funding perspective, TxDOT faces pressure to spend the money it currently has before starting on other projects on the western side of the urban area, including its planned reconstruction of U.S. 183 and continued work on MoPac (Loop 1), both alongside the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority and both intersecting with Loop 360 north of where the current project area begins.
Both RM 2222 and Bee Cave Road (RM 2244) are state highways that intersect Loop 360, but any TxDOT work on those is even farther out on the horizon. In the interim, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization's 2045 long-range plan lists a Capital Metro express route along RM 2222 at a $12 million cost, as well as a city of Austin project to make pedestrian and bicycle improvements from RM 2222 to the Four Points Drive connector at a cost of nearly $3 million. Both would happen by 2027. As for Bee Cave Road, the report lists a Travis County project that would add 6-foot bicycle lanes or 4- to 6-foot wide outer shoulders on both sides by 2030, at a cost approaching $17 million.
Late but Not Forgotten(?)
Some residents in the neighborhoods along Loop 360 doubt that many people will use a trail that is only slightly removed from traffic. Ruven Brooks is the co-chair of the Transportation Committee for the North West Austin Civic Association. He takes frequent walks totaling about 40 minutes per day and tries to walk in different parts of the city for a change of scenery. But the Loop 360 shared-use paths aren't likely to convince him to walk along that highway. "Why would I want to go walking on a sidewalk that is 5 feet or less away from 55 mph cars with no other barrier?" (The speed limit is actually 60 mph; it's anyone's guess how fast people may actually drive along the highway.)
As an avid walker, Brooks does see some potential to create a scenic path along the road, but to make him feel comfortable he'd need it much further removed from the road and with a more substantial barrier. "Let's begin by requesting that they put as much of a barrier between pedestrians and cars as they put between cars going in opposite directions."
Bike Austin's Chris Riley says that implementing a continuous 12-foot path along the highway should be a feasible goal. However, the former Austin City Council member worries that TxDOT remains too focused on car-centric solutions that don't take bicyclists and pedestrians into consideration, despite increasing investments in the active transportation network by Austin and other Texas cities. "I think you have a bunch of highway builders trying to get a project through with minimal disruption."
Tom Wald plays a role in many pedestrian and bike efforts throughout Austin, including as executive director and founder of the Red Line Parkway Initiative and a board member of Walk Austin. Wald shares Riley's concern. He says that the path's current design won't match the city's "all ages and abilities" criteria for such pedestrian/bike investments, meant to encourage both recreation and transportation with routes that all Austinites can feel are safe for them to travel. It also falls short in terms of path width and distance from a highway.
TxDOT has started to bring people like Riley and Wald to the table for input recently. While Riley remains hopeful that some of the design flaws can still be sorted out, he hopes that his inclusion isn't coming too late; Wald also feels the project can still be salvaged to accommodate the needs of bikes and pedestrians. "The hopeful vision is that we can create a shared-use path that's enjoyable and that people actually want to come and use it, and it's not just an add-on that they have to do. And I would just say it's a beautiful corridor," Wald said. "I think that there's a real opportunity to create something that people want to bike on. And I think it can be done well."