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