Austin American Statesman article: Brackenridge plans may strain nearby streets

From the June 28, 2009 Issue of the Austin American Statesman

Adding 13,000 residents to Tarrytown likely to put thousands of extra cars on already-crowded roads.image_8599268

By Ben Wear
Sunday, June 28, 2009

August Harris took one look at massive development plans unveiled this month for the University of Texas-owned Brackenridge tract in West Austin and his thoughts turned to the tangle of concrete where Lake Austin Boulevard runs into MoPac Boulevard.

On the best of days, it’s an intersection with a guaranteed rush-hour delay of several minutes as cars from four traffic streams converge on southbound MoPac (Loop 1) as it crosses Lady Bird Lake. On bad days, it’s a place to be avoided at all costs.

Harris, president of the West Austin Neighborhood Group, which represents the Tarrytown, Brykerwoods, Pemberton and Old Enfield communities, considers the potential for 13,000 additional residents a traffic disaster in the offing.

“The thing that makes this entirely impractical and unsustainable is the intersection at MoPac,” Harris said.

Concerns over other aspects of UT’s Brackenridge plan — losing Lions Municipal Golf Course and moving or shrinking UT’s biological field laboratory — have dominated public discourse since the UT System Board of Regents two years ago began pondering major changes on the century-old, 350-acre gift to the university. But the traffic impact of two development plans unveiled at a regents meeting June 18 could be the thorniest aspect of the project.

Just how much traffic would be generated by the Brackenridge Village plan — 15 million square feet of development and up to 8,700 new housing units — or the more modest Brackenridge Park plan — 6,600 housing units and 9,900 residents — will remain only a guess for at least another month.

UT officials, saying that they want the regents to get the information first for a meeting later this summer and that they don’t even have a draft report yet, did not release information last week in an underlying report that includes a traffic analysis of the development proposals.

Mike Weaver, a transportation consultant with the team that prepared the Brackenridge plans, said in a taped presentation to regents at the June 18 meeting that because the development as envisioned would be a dense mixture of housing, shops, offices and restaurants, it “will reduce the total number of vehicle trips. A lot of people don’t believe that.”

A reduction of 45 percent to 50 percent, Weaver said, was possible.

But Weaver said later that he didn’t mean to imply that adding all that development would mean fewer cars than currently drive on the nearby streets — 21,160 cars a day on Lake Austin Boulevard, 10,255 on Exposition Boulevard and 6,857 on Enfield Road in the most recent counts. Rather, Weaver said last week, the type of development proposed (transit-, bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly, with many of residents’ needs close at hand) would mean that people would take 45 percent to 50 percent fewer off-site trips than they would in a more typical suburban development.

“The trouble is,” says Harris with the neighborhood group, “that means that 50 to 55 percent don’t stay on site.”

So, how much traffic might be sparked by the development, which according to the June 18 presentation would take more than 20 years to unfold?

A typical housing unit generates about 10 vehicle trips a day, according to a long-standing rule of thumb in the development community. By that logic, and applying Weaver’s formulation that about half the trips would be eliminated by the development’s design, Tarrytown would see a jaw-dropping 40,000 additional vehicle trips a day or more.

But developer Ed Wendler, who is not involved in the Brackenridge situation, said this type of project, with no single-family homes, might draw more single residents and couples without children than is typical. Wendler said such people take fewer trips per day than a family with children. And the current uses on the land — 200 or so golfers a day, the 1,000-plus residents now living in married-student housing on the tract — already generate a few thousand car trips daily.

“That would tend to make the trips per unit much less,” Wendler said. “But still, even at half, you’re talking about a lot of units.”

Weaver said last week that with that many new people moving in, there will be many more cars on the streets, though he wasn’t willing to talk specifics.

The plans contemplate widening Exposition and Lake Austin boulevards, as well as rerouting short sections of them within the development. Lake Austin Boulevard, the consultants said, would be converted into “a very green, Southern type of boulevard” with a landscaped median and mature trees lining it on broad sidewalks.

The developer would almost surely pay for all new or changed roads within the tract, Weaver and others familiar with such projects said. And the cost of improvements beyond the edge of a tract made necessary by the new traffic demands, Weaver said, typically would be substantially covered by the developer.

But Weaver said that extending the Lady Bird Lake hike-and-bike trail west to the Brackenridge tract would encourage bicycle commuting and that rail or “rapid bus” routes out to the tract from downtown would cut down on the traffic demand.

And the consultant team recommends creating a “transportation management organization” at Brackenridge, made up of residents, employers and employees in the future community, that would push for improvements in how people move in and out of the development.

Additionally, the consultants have suggested a couple of tweaks to the spaghetti bowl interchange where MoPac, Lake Austin Boulevard and Fifth, Sixth and Cesar Chavez streets come together. At this point, it is unclear whether Texas Department of Transportation, the City of Austin, the developer or some mixture of the three might pay for any such work on the interchange.

Weaver said that the recommended changes — adding a Fifth-to-Sixth turnaround lane and a Sixth-to-southbound MoPac direct connecting bridge — would take some pressure off that troublesome intersection. Not so, Harris said.

“Their fixes are nothing more than Band-Aids,” he said. All the traffic would still merge into a one-lane ramp to south MoPac, he pointed out.

The big picture, Harris said, is that UT is contemplating moving thousands of people into a lake-locked residential corner of the city served by a handful of minor arterial streets.

“It’s not along Texas 130 or I-35,” he said. “It’s not even along MoPac. It’s smack-dab in the middle of a neighborhood.”, 445-3698

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