Council reopens downtown streets conversation

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

Backlash from the community, especially from those commuting through downtown daily on RR 1869, has been vocal and constant since the downtown one-way streets plan was implemented.

The frustration has led the City Council to call for a new public hearing, March 25, to revisit the issue in an effort to find a traffic solution.

The item was placed on the agenda by Council member Liz Rundzieher, who said she has watched the traffic issue in the mornings and believes something needs to be done.

“Last week I went down and just sat and watched traffic,” she said. “The traffic coming into town from 1869 is out of sight. That is why I think, until we get the intersection fixed like we want it with a signal light, we should at least give people an alternative.”

What Rundzieher proposes is to make Barton and Myrtle each two way for one block to create an alternative route.

Area resident Jennifer King spoke against the one-way streets Monday.

“This is one of the reasons I wanted to live in Liberty Hill and teach in amazing schools, not driving in rush hour traffic in Austin,” she said. “I love my job and my community. After the change of the streets to one way, my commute doubled and even tripled at times. I’ve been there in traffic up to 30 minutes to get through.”

The hearing does not mean changes will definitely be made, but Mayor Rick Hall, as well as Council members Troy Whitehead, Elizabeth Branigan and Rundzieher said they supported more discussion of the issue.

“This is to have a public hearing, to have a public discussion, open it up to the public where the public can come in and talk about their concerns, our concerns, education on the issue and everything,” Hall said.

But Monday’s decision to call the hearing was not without disagreement. Council member Ron Rhea, who was the sole vote against the proposal, said the City had already had hearings on the issue, and starting over was not the right decision.

“I’d like to remind the Council, going back sometime now, that we’ve had three public hearings on this,” Rhea said. “Not just one, but three. Not only have we had three public hearings to allow everyone to come and have input, we also had several discussions in this chamber amongst one another.”

The money already spent on the project – nearly $37,000 not including consulting and engineering – was also a concern for Rhea.

“We paid a traffic consultant taxpayer money, which was in the thousands of dollars, to come in and do this traffic flow for us,” Rhea said. “This is the reason we did the three public hearings. This is why we sat down and vetted it and everyone had the chance to come in and sit down and talk with us.”

He opposes spending more money to do all those things over again.

“We’ve also got to bring in another traffic consultant, spend more thousands of dollars, for something we’ve already done,” Rhea said. “Then, we’re going to put a burden on this neighborhood with through traffic where the kids are at.”

Narrow streets downtown, that don’t allow for two-way traffic, as well as an effort to control traffic through downtown, were the driving factors in the plan originally. Since the backup on RR 1869 has frayed so many nerves, the City has pointed to the eventual Stubblefield extension and a long-term plan to signalize the intersection at RR 1869 and Loop 332 as changes that will ease the back up.

Neither of those solutions are immediate, though, and the signalization is not something the City can do on its own.

“Currently, anything we do at that four-way, we need to get permission from TxDOT (Texas Department of Transportation),” said City Administrator Greg Boatright. “They are doing a warrant study on that, and if it comes back and it doesn’t warrant a signal at that intersection, then unless we’re willing to take over 1869 as part of our roadway system for the City, we have to wait for TxDOT to signalize that intersection. That could be three years, that could be 10 years, who knows.”

He added that the idea of a temporary change to the one-way streets may not be so temporary.

“When we consider taking the one-way off, we don’t know what that window looks like,” Boatright said. “It could be that when we take the one-way off it could stay that way a long time.”

The one-way plan was put into effect in October 2018.

The issue was originally discussed in January 2018, and Council Member Wendell McLeod called for the Council to schedule a public meeting to get feedback from the community. After publicizing and hosting a public meeting on the one-way streets proposal on Feb. 12, the City Council voted 3-1, with Liz Branigan opposing and McLeod absent, to approve the change of six streets downtown to one way. Branigan’s opposition was based on previous concerns raised regarding whether Barton should remain two-way, at least temporarily.

No one spoke against the proposal at that meeting, or at any subsequent meeting until the plan went into effect in October.

The changes made Aynsworth, Munro and Myrtle streets one-way south, while Fallwell and Grange streets will be one-way north. Barton will be one-way north, toward RR 1869, where a divider will allow traffic to go either direction on RR 1869.

The cost of the project, to include signage and necessary street improvements at intersections, was $36,522.50.

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