Dear Governor Abbott and members of the Texas Transportation Commission:
We urgently request your support in protecting both property values and the most precious resources of the Austin area from an unnecessary overbuild of US Highway 290 West through Oak Hill.
In less than two weeks’ time, TxDOT has converted US Highway 290 west of the “Y” intersection as far as Circle Drive to a wasteland. Until the sudden removal of nearly all trees bordering the highway, this was a beautiful wooded place that greeted westbound travelers as the beginning of the true Hill Country. It represented a remnant of old growth forest with more than 200 heritage trees, protected by city ordinance, but considered expendable by TxDOT.
Loss of this native forest is a disaster for the city of Austin as well as for the neighborhoods of Oak Hill. It includes great oaks that have flourished in this place for centuries, providing shelter to native Americans, to cattle drives on the trail into Austin, to church picnics of the last century, and to many new generations of Texans who have found Oak Hill, the settlement beside Williamson Creek, to be that special spot where they choose to raise their families and spend their lives. For all of these, Oak Hill was home.
The trees grew and survived where they were because of water and geology. The highway follows the natural gap carved by Williamson Creek, and near the junction with William Cannon it crosses into the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone, where ground water, including water carried by the creek itself, seeps directly into the aquifer. Here the limestone is not only porous, but fractured by the escarpment, multiplying the number of fissures and paths for water and surface contaminants. That is the reason for impervious cover restrictions in Southwest Austin. It is also the reason that human penetration of the surface layer should be minimized. The current TxDOT plan for the misnamed Oak Hill Parkway includes excavation 30 feet deep into the limestone, a high-risk proposition likely to trigger construction delays and long term damage, as well as increased seepage of contaminants from the surface into Barton Springs.
TxDOT is a government agency entrusted with employing its resources and expertise for the public good. In 2014 the federal government extended to TxDOT the authority to approve its own environmental impact studies. That eliminated any supervisory authority over its design. There remains only the fiscal control of the state and federal government. Public funding must be contingent on TxDOT using its enormous power and resources for the common good.
For more than thirty years, we citizens of Oak Hill have tried to negotiate with TxDOT to assure that this highway project through the heart of our community will benefit and not destroy a special place known as the “Gateway to the Hill Country.” We took advantage of every opportunity to communicate. We consistently urged that the highway be improved, but as a less massive project, protecting the trees, the creek, and the unique character of Oak Hill. We even developed alternative concepts that would build the needed traffic capacity without destroying environment and community.
TxDOT moved ahead relentlessly, approved its own EIS, and tapped several public funding sources to finance a $674 million-dollar package for this 12-lane highway, both elevated above the ground and excavated below it. Seeing irremediable damage, a group of Oak Hill citizens filed suit for injunction as a last resort. The injunction was denied, not because the claim of damage was not valid, but because TxDOT had complied with the letter of the law. It did not affect TxDOT’s practice of evaluating itself and then approving the evaluation.
Neighborhoods of West Oak Hill have paid a heavy price. This is an area that suffers from a lack of public parks, schools, and essential services yet has now been deprived of its greenbelt and characteristic scenery. Continuing with policies this blind to community needs has repercussions throughout the state. With inevitable inflation and delays, the current 290 West project will almost certainly pass the billion-dollar mark and leave a toll of devastation to the environment, degradation of the community, and waste of taxpayer funds.
It is a blatant violation of public trust.
Oak Hill Neighbors.org