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Transportation

Construction Nears For The 'Y' In Oak Hill As Neighbors Press For Changes

 An aerial view of the Y in Oak Hill
Nathan Bernier
/
KUT
The interchange where U.S. 290 and Texas 71 split into separate highways is the focus of a contentious $674 million highway project.

A contentious highway project in Southwest Austin around an interchange that’s become synonymous with gridlock is about to break ground even as neighbors keep fighting to dial it back.

The “Y” in Oak Hill is a heavily congested junction where U.S. 290 and Texas 71 split into separate highways. Pre-construction work has already started on the Texas Department of Transportation's $674 million plan to rebuild the interchange, add nonstop lanes and flyovers, and make the thoroughfare up to 12 lanes wide. TxDOT is calling it the Oak Hill Parkway.

But residents and environmentalists worry about the project's effects on everything from water to quality of life. They're promoting an alternative plan they say would increase traffic capacity without sacrificing the look and feel of the area or its sensitive environmental features.

How Bad Is Traffic?

The stretch of U.S. 290/Texas 71 from MoPac to RM 1826 is the 43rd most congested in the state, according to an annual ranking by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. Traffic slowdowns on that 4-mile stretch of road waste more than one-million person hours per year, the institute says.

Y in Oak Hill

"The traffic's always crazy, so I avoid that like the plague," Laurie Adams said as she shopped at Belterra, one of several master-planned communities that have brought thousands of new residents to areas west of the Y.

A bottleneck at the Y has traffic flowing like electricity along a path of least resistance. Vehicles detour through back roads, causing traffic jams near spacious residential communities where people least expect it.

"In the morning when my kids would go to school at 7:40, traffic would be backed up a half a mile," said Melissa Takamatsu, who lives on Thomas Springs Road near Texas 71. She said she understands why people cut through the area.

"We attempted to go through the Y on the weekend one time, and it was just a nightmare and I thought, 'This is crazy,' she said. "And it never changed."

The $674 Million Parkway

TxDOT says the Oak Hill Parkway is the change drivers seek. It includes:

  • Six miles of new roadway along U.S. 290
  • Two to three nonstop main lanes in each direction on U.S. 290
  • Two to three frontage road lanes in each direction on U.S. 290
  • A U.S. 290/Texas 71 overpass at William Cannon
  • Sunken main lanes of U.S. 290 farther west that allow cross streets to remain at ground level
  • More than a mile of new roadway along Texas 71
  • Full reconstruction of the Y interchange itself with new flyovers between U.S. 90 and Texas 71
  • New intersections along U.S. 290 at Convict Hill Road, RM 1826, Scenic Brooke Drive and Circle Drive
  • New pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, including 14 miles of shared use path
  • New landscaping, tree plantings and other aesthetic additions
  • A stormwater detention pond to reduce flood risk
  • Water quality treatment ponds

"We are so excited. This is 30-plus years in the making. It's finally coming to fruition," TxDOT spokesperson Brad Wheelis said. "We know that there are a lot of people in Oak Hill and out west that want to see some relief. This is going to provide that relief."

Oak Hill Parkway 3-D Animation

But the relief offered by TxDOT is seen as a wrecking ball by residents and environmentalists concerned about the disruption required to shape a highway of this size. So they created an alternative project.

The Livable Oak Hill plan would have only six lanes and be at ground level. The group Save Oak Hill says it would have a smaller footprint, cost less, take less time to build, and preserve trees and waterways.

Livable Oak Hill Plan renderings
Save Oak Hill
Artist renderings from the Livable Oak Hill plan, an alternative proposed by the group Save Oak Hill.

A judge ordered mediation after a coalition of neighborhood and environmental groups sued to force TxDOT to incorporate the plan. The plaintiffs say TxDOT didn't take the mediation seriously. Now, a magistrate judge is reviewing.

TxDOT says the proposed alternative is too small in scope and not adequate for future growth.

"TxDOT conducted extensive community outreach over many, many years," Wheelis said. "We have incorporated what the majority of the community would like to see and married that with what is feasible from an engineering and safety standpoint."

Environmental Costs

Some residents remain unconvinced.

"We will be sandwiched in by this megafreeway that turns it from a green, attractive, covered-with-trees set of hills into concrete city," Karon Rilling said. "I might as well live in Dallas or Houston."

Karon Rilling at her home in the Oak Hill neighborhood of southwest Austin, TX on June 2, 2021.
Gabriel C. Pérez
Oak Hill resident Karon Rilling opposes TxDOT's plan to ease congestion at the Y.

TxDOT's own environmental analysis concludes the roadway construction and operation could send stormwater contaminated with heavy metals, oil or pesticides into Williamson Creek and down into the Edwards Aquifer. Dye trace studies by hydrogeologist Nico Hauwert have shown water in Williamson Creek can resurface at Barton Springs in Zilker Park.

TxDOT says the project will comply with Edwards Aquifer rules and guidance from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Environmentalists are skeptical.

"It's not really a parkway at this point, because there's no park in the parkway. It's a porkway," Steve Beers with the Save Barton Creek Association said. "There's all this pork in there of unnecessary expensive construction to make it elevated and excavated through an environmentally sensitive area."

Williamson Creek in the Oak Hill neighborhood of southwest Austin, TX on June 2, 2021.
Gabriel C. Pérez
Williamson Creek is just steps from U.S. 290.

Other groundwater concerns include the consequences of digging into unknown caves that could allow runoff to enter the aquifer with little or no opportunity to filter out pollution. TxDOT says such empty spaces would have to be plugged, removing them from the Edwards Aquifer recharge system.

Clearing the path for a widened U.S. 290/Texas 71 will also require mowing down patches of native hardwood trees. TxDOT's survey effort mapped 518 such trees, mostly oak and pecan. Close to 300 would be destroyed, according to Save Oak Hill.

A live oak tree in the Oak Hill neighborhood of southwest Austin, TX on June 2, 2021.
Gabriel C. Pérez
TxDOT's survey of the area found more than 500 native hardwood trees, many of which would need to be removed to make way for the highway.

TxDOT has vowed to preserve at least four large trees considered iconic because of their size, location or history: Beckett Grove Tree, Grandmother Oak, Grandfather Oak and the Nieces. These are mostly near the intersection of U.S. 290 and William Cannon Drive.

The Save Barton Creek Association has raised money to fight the project by encouraging people to "Adopt-a-Tree."

Concrete Plant Plans

Building the Oak Hill Parkway will take tons and tons of concrete. The builder, Colorado River Contractors, wants to create a nearby temporary concrete plant. One location considered was the parking lot of the old Austin Community College Pinnacle Campus. The campus has been closed since 2018 while ACC decides what to do with the site. ACC trustees voted in May to rule out a concrete plant at the site, but may consider allowing CRC to use facility for other operations.

Yard signage in opposition to a planned concrete plant in Oak Hill
Gabriel C. Pérez
Yard signs in opposition to a planned concrete plant in Oak Hill.

Talk of a concrete plant has incensed community members already fuming about the highway project. They formed a group to oppose the plant and raise concerns about air pollution, noise pollution and the 200 daily truck trips the plant could draw.

"Oak Hill residents, especially elderly, asthmatic, auto-immune sufferers, pregnant women, infants and children will be put at risk," resident Ava Coibion told Austin City Council members during a public comment period Thursday. About a dozen community members urged council to stop the concrete plant and join a lawsuit against the project.

At least one council member demanded to know why the city had not filed an amicus brief in support of residents and environmental advocates.

“I’m asking that question,” Council Member Leslie Pool said. “The situation is beyond distressing.”

Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect a May vote by ACC trustees on the use of the ACC Pinnacle campus by CRC.

Got a tip? Email Nathan Bernier at nbernier@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @KUTnathan.

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