It's a safe bet that the new boardwalk opening along Austin's Lady Bird Lake will attract throngs of people. It’s a sleek, modern, structure. At about 14 feet wide and around a mile long, it provides plenty of space for joggers, cyclists, and people who want to take in a view of the city.
But if those people walk east, intent on realizing the boardwalk's promise of closing the loop of trails around the lake, they will find themselves at the Pleasant Valley Bridge over the Longhorn Dam– a river crossing that is neither sleek nor modern.
For years city officials have considered it potentially unsafe, and worry it could become more so with added foot traffic from the boardwalk. So far efforts to improve the crossing have failed.
People who use the bridge frequently call it a notoriously tricky crossing. The generally spacious hike and bike trail narrows to around four feet on its western sidewalk. Cyclists and pedestrians squeeze past each other with a chain link fence on one side, a three foot tall railing and water on the other.
“If there’s a runner, I’ve had it happen before. They wait for me to come through on my bike and then they keep running.” says Lydia Palazzolo, who crosses at least once a day.
“I’ll just go as fast as I can, so I can cross the bridge before I see somebody else," says Paul Wilson, whose work brings him over the bridge multiple times a day.
A few years ago the city installed signs along the bridge to encourage cyclists to use the road. Research showed the signs were ineffective, and they were taken down after the city got complaints from motorists.
Then last year the city announced plans to convert two lanes of street traffic to bike lanes to address "poor safety" for cyclists and pedestrians. A city memo called it “the only way to significantly improve the safety for cyclists and trail users on the existing structure.”
Officials told the Statesman the lanes would be in place by this spring to accommodate a huge increase in hike and bike traffic from the boardwalk. But the city has reversed course on that project.
“During the community involvement process we heard from people in the area that they would like to maintain the vehicle lanes on that bridge so that’s what we’re working on now," says Samantha Alexander, a spokeswoman for the Austin Transportation Department. "It's taking a little longer but we hope to come up with something that works for everybody.”
Alexander says much of that community feedback came during public outreach for the Holly Shores Master Plan. A proposed pedestrian bridge further west faced opposition from neighborhood groups during that same process. Now, officials with the transportation department say they’re not ready to go public with other suggestions right now, though they are welcoming suggestions.
Christopher Stanton, who serves on the city’s bike advisory committee, has already offered one. He runs the Ghisallo Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes biking among kids. He knows the hassle of crossing on Pleasant Valley first hand. “When we have 14 kids coming across whoever’s on the other side has to wait for a very long time," he says with a laugh.
Stanton's idea is to create a new bridge across the lake that would run as close to the existing bridge as possible.
“What we would like to see is kind of a lake-level bridge. Like a floating bridge like they have in Portland, or another thing similar to the boardwalk," he says.
Once a plan is finalized it still needs to be funded –meaning a long-term solution to the bottleneck is probably years away.
The boardwalk along Lady Bird Lake in Austin opens tomorrow.