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Nearly 100-year-old Barton Springs Road Bridge to be replaced with wider crossing

A view of the Barton Springs Road Bridge from below. The trees and bridge are reflecting on the calm waters. A cyclist on the bridge is leaning on the edge and watching what's going on.
Nathan Bernier
/
KUT
The Barton Springs Road Bridge was built in 1926 and expanded in 1946.

Lee esta historia en español

An almost-century-old bridge that serves as a gateway to Zilker Park and a route to MoPac needs to be replaced, city officials say, despite the structure's historic significance. Now, the City Council has granted its blessing to move forward with a complete rebuild of the Barton Springs Road Bridge.

The concrete bridge opened in June 1926 — the same year Zilker Park expanded to 300 acres and construction of Barton Springs Park began, according to a historical report prepared for the city.

The crossing replaced an antiquated wooden structure that Austin officials had declared dangerous in the 1920s.

As car culture boomed in the post-World War II era, the city doubled the bridge deck width in 1946. A second sidewalk was added, but like the first, it was an unprotected walkway only 5 feet wide.

As the years rolled by, the bridge began to show its age.

An image showing concrete that appears to be covered in green splotches. A date printed on the bottom right of the image says June 14, 2016.
City of Austin
An 2016 image from a city report showing deterioration of beam underneath the Barton Springs Road Bridge.

City officials say bridge inspection reports — which have been removed from a 651-page public document on the Barton Springs Road Bridge — have warned the crossing is deteriorating. Heavy vehicles including Capital Metro buses must stay in the right lane when traveling eastbound.

Public Works Department staff studied rehabilitating the bridge, but ultimately ditched the concept, arguing it would cost about the same as a brand-new bridge. A renovated bridge would last 50 to 75 years instead of 75 to 100 for a new crossing, a November 2022 memo from Public Works head James Snow concluded.

The decision not to rehab the bridge roiled Save Our Springs Alliance director Bill Bunch, who insisted the structure be preserved.

"Please don't do this. It's the wrong thing. We need to be saving our historic bridges, including this one," he told city council members at a public meeting earlier this month.

An animated gif of flying under the Barton Springs Road Bridge.
Nathan Bernier
/
KUT
Barton Creek runs underneath the Barton Springs Road Bridge.

Others have pushed the Council to move forward with a new bridge.

"The new pedestrian-bike upgrades made possible by this replacement bridge are transformative and will have a huge impact on the jewel to our city, Zilker Park," said Felicity Maxwell, a transit activist and member of the city's Planning Commission, a body that makes recommendations to council on zoning changes and other land rules.

City Council was unswayed by the preservationist argument, voting unanimously this month to adopt the replacement plan, except for council members Ryan Alter and Alison Alter who weren't present for the vote.

An illustration showing the new Barton Springs Road Bridge.
City of Austin
City staff say their proposed bridge design would limit obstructions for boaters and maximize views under the bridge. People will have more chances to weigh in on what the bridge should look like.

"I think generally it's probably a bad idea to band-aid together a fix of a bridge. If it's going to cost the same amount of money, wouldn't we want it to last another 100 years?" Council Member Paige Ellis said to KUT. Ellis represents District 8 which is among three council districts that converge at the Barton Springs Bridge.

A map of city council districts showing Districts 5, 8 and 9 converging at the intersection of Azie Morton Road and Barton Springs Road.
City of Austin
City council districts 5, 8 and 9 — represented by Ryan Alter, Paige Ellis and Zo Qadri — all converge near the Barton Springs Road Bridge.

"I'm open to looking at, as we replace it, can it look as close to the original design as possible," Ellis said.

Austin plans to almost double the width of the bridge deck from 59 feet to 109 feet. The new design would have wider sidewalks on both sides, two bicycle lanes, four car lanes and a median that would match the one on Barton Springs Drive east of Azie Morton Road.

A cross-section of the city's plans for the Barton Springs Road Bridge. From left to right, the cross-section shows a 13-foot, 18-inch wide multi-use path, a small barrier, a 10-foot wide bike lane, a small barrier, an 11-foot, 6-inch wide car lane, a 10-foot wide car lane, a median, a 10-foot wide car lane, an 11-foot, 6-inch wide car lane, a small barrier, a 10-foot wide bike lane and a 17-foot, 8-inch wide multi-use path.
City of Austin
A cross-section of the city's plans for the Barton Springs Road Bridge featuring wider sidewalks, dedicated bike lanes and a center median.

The city's design would allow for new trails under the bridge and leave space for the Zilker Eagle, once the mini-train begins running again. The Austin Parks Foundation said in November that Zilker Eagle testing would begin in the "coming months" — again pushing back an estimated restart date for the decades-old children's ride.

Austin only has enough money to complete some of the plans for the bridge. The 30% design work — which outlines a bridge's structure and function — will cost about $10 million. The money is coming from city debt that voters agreed to pay back with property taxes in 2020.

Construction costs of replacing the bridge are estimated at $36.7 million. If Austin can come up with the money, staff with a city department called Capital Delivery Services believe a new bridge could be built by 2029.

An aerial view of the Barton Springs Road Bridge with the city of Austin skyline in the background.
Nathan Bernier
/
KUT
Barton Creek, which passes under the Barton Springs Road Bridge, leads to Lady Bird Lake and skyline views of downtown Austin.

Correction: This story has been corrected to clarify that heavy vehicles must use the right lane when traveling eastbound.

Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. He covers the big projects that are reshaping how we get around Austin, like the I-35 overhaul, the airport's rapid growth and the multibillion dollar transit expansion Project Connect. He also focuses on the daily changes that affect how we walk, bike and drive around the city. Got a tip? Email him at nbernier@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @KUTnathan.
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