The hike and bike trail around Lady Bird Lake is one of the most popular attractions in Austin. But the city has known for a long time that at least one section of the path is unsafe – and it’s only getting worse.
The Pleasant Valley Bridge over the Longhorn Dam is the only way to cross the lake east of I-35, but it’s a notoriously tricky crossing. Cyclists and pedestrians are funneled into a sidewalk that narrows down to around 4-feet wide on the western side of the bridge. Jersey barriers and a chain-link fence block people from traffic on one side, and an approximately 3-foot-tall railing stands between them and a drop into the lake on the other.
The situation forces trail users into a precarious tango when crossing the bridge. If the trail is busy, some people squeeze as far against opposing barriers to give each other room to pass, a frightening proposition, especially for cyclists contemplating a drop into the water.
Others simply wait at the ends of the bridge to avoid the difficulty.
Calling the crossing unsafe, the city announced plans in 2013 for a bike lane on the bridge. Some people in the nearby neighborhood opposed that plan, and the city backed off. A year later, Austin proposed building a whole new pedestrian bridge as part of its Holly Shores redevelopment. That project was also met with opposition.
“It’s been on our radar for a long time,” says Nathan Wilkes, a planner for the city’s Transportation Department.
Wilkes says the department recently received money to study a new bridge, but the actual building of a bridge is still only a distant possibility.
“You need to have an engineering firm, which we're working on getting on board, in scoping a study that can handle the hydraulics of the dam, looking at various alignments and their pros and cons, and how it might affect community and water flows, etc.,” Wilkes says.
Austin's Trail Foundation included improving the crossing on a list of projects highlighted in a recent “State of the Trail” announcement.
Heidi Anderson, executive director of the foundation, says it is working with the city to look at different places a new bridge could be installed.
She says there were options beyond building a new bridge over the lake.
“There’s a potential for attaching something to the dam itself, to create a separate pedestrian space,” Anderson says. “There’s even a third concept, which brings us underneath the road of Pleasant Valley and creates a connection on that side.”
Anderson equated the project with the construction of the Lady Bird Lake boardwalk, a piece of infrastructure that took many years, cost millions of dollars and attracted much controversy.
In the meantime, trail users wonder if the city couldn’t find a short-term solution to give them more room to cross.
“Let’s just extend [the sidewalk] a little bit,” says jogger Brent Meador, guessing an extra foot would help. “That’s easy right?”
Not according to Wilkes.
“That also needs to be studied in detail," he says, "and there needs to be public conversations about what may be possible.”
In the meantime, hike and bike traffic on the trail continues to increase along with development on the East side, including a new campus for the tech company Oracle, which will bring thousands more people to the area.