Outdoors in Austin

Timeline to improve popular East Austin trail crossing expected to take years

Timeline to improve East Austin trail crossing expected to take years

Longhorn Dam Colorado River
The improvements could take five to 10 years — depending on how quickly Austinites agree. The Trail Foundation/Facebook

In November 2018, the City of Austin held a public meeting to discuss Longhorn Dam Multimodal Improvements, a cumbersome name for what amounts to a pedestrian bridge for the Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail at Longhorn Dam.

Currently, the trail crosses the Colorado River via a sidewalk along the dam on the north side of Pleasant Valley Road, separated from the road by a concrete barrier topped by fencing. It is narrow, ugly, and water pools on the pavement after it rains, but the closest alternate crossings are two miles away in either direction.

Project partners include Public Works Department, Austin Transportation Department, Parks and Recreation, Austin Water Utility, and Watershed Protection. That’s a lot of players and this is Austin, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that the timeline calls for the project to take five to 10 years.

With that first meeting checked off, the next step is presentation of alternatives at another public meeting this spring, with recommendations following in the fall. That’s all part of a year of preliminary engineering.

After that, moving forward depends on securing funding for the design. After that happens, detailed design is slated to take one and a half years. The design, of course, determines the cost of construction, which also needs to be secured. Following a six- to nine-month bid and award process, construction is expected to take two years.

Rome, as they say, wasn’t built in a day. But five years seems like a lot of time for a pedestrian bridge spanning roughly 500 feet across the water. Some trail users might wonder if they’ll make it that long.

“Our strategy is to accelerate the process as much as possible,” says project manager Nathan Wilkes. “Everyone at the city is clear that fixing the problem is well supported.”

One potential time constraint is community input on preferences for where the bridge will go and its design. Options for the former include a separate structure upstream of the dam, running either parallel to the dam or angling over to a peninsula; a separate structure downstream of the dam; or widening the existing bridge. In addition to public opinion, the choice is affected by water flows and flooding concerns.

Options for the structure itself range from a conventional beam bridge, the least-expensive design, to a custom beam bridge, such as the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge near Lamar Boulevard, or some iconic design, likely to be the most expensive.

“If the community really comes to a consensus on the route and the design, we could get answers as soon as possible,” says Wilkes. In other words, if Austinites don’t act like typical Austinites and argue endlessly over every detail, it'll move forward quickly. Stranger things have happened.

The public also can help by supporting funding for the design and construction, probably on the order of $10 to $15 million. “If we have the funding, then five years is realistic,” Wilkes says. “If it takes three years to get the money, then add three years to the timeline.”

Meanwhile, the city is evaluating interim improvements such as increasing the width of the sidewalk on both sides of the current bridge and improving access. “We have heard loud and clear that people don’t want to wait five years, which is why we’re looking at doing interim improvements as quickly as possible,” Wilkes says.

Opportunities for public input will be posted on the project website and materials from the November public meeting are posted there as well. Individuals can sign up to get email notices so they can keep tabs on the progress.

Just remember, the quicker everyone can come to agreement on where and what to build, and the more people voice funding support to the appropriate audiences, the sooner a bridge will be built.