Why the ‘Y’ project stalled, and what’s ahead for U.S. 290

Austin American-Statesman - - METRO & STATE -

The States­man ar­ti­cle, now just over two decades old, was as con­fi­dent as the state­ments of the pub­lic of­fi­cials in it. The long-de­layed project to turn traf­fi­crid­den U.S. 290 into a six-lane ex­press­way all the way through the Oak Hill “Y,” the ar­ti­cle said, would be done by … 1994.

To quote philoso­pher Maxwell Smart, “Missed it by tha-a-a-t much.”

In re­al­ity, the free­way por­tion of U.S. 290 made it as far west as Joe Tan­ner Lane, just be­fore the old Oak Hill busi­ness district, by spring 1999. There it ran aground be­cause of com­mu­nity and en­vi­ron­men­tal re­sis­tance to build­ing 12 lanes of road (there were to be six frontage road lanes as well) through the for­merly bu­colic set­ting.

I say for­merly, be­cause the Texas Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion long ago bought ex­tra right of way through the area and flat­tened many busi­nesses. Most of the oaks and the star­tling cliffs of Con­vict Hill re­main, but any real charm along there is a thing of the past. So is a good deal of the re­sis­tance — though pock­ets re­main — beaten down by years of slog­ging through the half dozen or so stop­lights in that key two-mile gate­way to the Hill Coun­try.

Also gone, how­ever, is the money that Tx­DOT had set aside and was poised to spend in 1990. When op­po­si­tion to the project cropped up back then, Tx­DOT redi­rected the money to other Austin-area projects, in­clud­ing the big fly­over project at In­ter­state 35 and Ben White Boule­vard.

The “Y” project be­came a pro­posed toll­way in 2004, but even that stalled due to

that same com­mu­nity pres­sure, am­pli­fied by the toll is­sue and, later, Tx­DOT’s cash crunch. Now what? Low­ered ex­pec­ta­tions — way lower. Tx­DOT, the City of Austin and the Cen­tral Texas Re­gional Mo­bil­ity Author­ity are jointly fund­ing an $85,000 study on ways to de­crease con­ges­tion in Oak Hill with in­ter­sec­tion im­prove­ments. That might lead to a mod­est project of $10 mil­lion or so to build “con­tin­u­ous flow” sig­nal­ized in­ter­sec­tions at Wil­liam Can­non Drive and the other cross streets, or some other way to buy a few years of bet­ter traf­fic flow. The project list for the pro­posed city bond ref­er­en­dum for Novem­ber in­cludes $4 mil­lion for this. Think of it as the stop­gap so­lu­tion.

The Texas Trans­porta­tion Com­mis­sion, mean­while, has ap­proved $5 mil­lion for a new fed­eral en­vi­ron­men­tal study of the full 12-lane project, this time in­clud­ing tolls, be­cause the study ap­proved a gen­er­a­tion ago has been ren­dered de­funct by time and tolls. That study should take at least three years.

But Tx­DOT, given the huge cost of that (north of $500 mil­lion), would likely in­stead build a more mod­est, in­terim toll­way. This half-a-loaf plan, of­fi­cials say, would prob­a­bly fea­ture four toll lanes from Joe Tan­ner Lane to west of RM 1826, with four frontage lanes, and a sim­ple over­pass at Texas 71. That smaller project, even in the best of cir­cum­stances, wouldn’t open un­til late this decade. When will the 12-lane project be done? Not even gonna guess.

BeN Wear

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