By CASSIE MCKEE, Four Points News
Place 6 City Council member Don Zimmerman says he is developing a roadway concept that would provide an evacuation route for Vandegrift High School and Four Points Middle School, reduce the wildfire threat in the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve and also help alleviate traffic congestion in Four Points.
“We do have a conceptual plan to connect RM 2222 and US 183 via McNeil and Spicewood Springs,” Zimmerman said. “A primary purpose is fire safety and emergency evacuation – hence our nickname of ‘Fire Break Parkway.’”
Zimmerman said he has discussed the proposal with multiple groups including the Austin Fire Department and officials with Leander ISD and Travis County, with the hope of it becoming a joint project. He said decades of unmanaged growth and vegetation accumulation in the BCP poses a serious wildfire threat.
A roadway could serve as a fire break to help keep wildfire from spreading and also allow firefighters to respond more quickly, he said. The road would be built on an existing ridge of land and would have two arms of roadway. One arm would connect Austin Fire Department Station 39, located at 7701 River Place Blvd., with Fire Station 44, located at 11612 Four Iron Dr., allowing firefighters to reach the BCP much quicker. The other arm would connect McNeil Drive with Spicewood Springs Road, creating an alternate route to U.S. Hwy 183 for those in Four Points.
“In addition, the road would provide an emergency evacuation of students at Leander ISD schools and possibly the 3M complex,” Zimmerman said.
The new council member started working on this in January when he took office and the goal would be to have it done in the next three to four years. He said LISD was thinking it would take two to three years to get the part behind VHS built and then probably a bond package would be needed to get the longer portion built.
Moving forward, Zimmerman said he will be looking for resolutions of support for the project. Ideas such as this have met opposition in the past primarily for environmental reasons, he said.
“There’s been a political policy that no one’s allowed to set foot on anything that’s called preserve land,” he said. “I think the public is fed up with this environmental extremism that puts what they say are the needs of a spider above the needs of the people. That’s a political fight that needs to happen.”
While he did not have any official cost estimates, he said he would hope the road could be built for $30 million. He said the largest cost factor is the amount of environmental mitigation that would have to be done.
“You could make the road so environmentally safe that you couldn’t afford to build it,” he said. “Frankly, I’m a little embarrassed that people in the city are held hostage to insects and reptiles. I find it kind of offensive.”
There is already some opposition to the idea. Judit Kolics, president of the Mountain Neighborhood Association, located near U.S. Hwy 183 and Spicewood Springs, said her neighborhood opposes the project because they believe that it would not solve the problems Zimmerman outlined; rather, it would add to existing issues.
“Zimmerman lists fire safety in the BCP as the primary motivation behind the project; however, according to the Austin Fire Department, ‘96 percent of wildfires are caused by humans,’ thus building a road that cuts through the greenbelt will actually increase the likelihood of wildfires since the road would give access to BCP areas that are currently hidden from humans,” Kolics said. “AFD should be contacted in search of alternatives that would satisfy the fire department’s needs without building a road across the preserve.”
Kolics said while her neighborhood does not argue that Leander ISD needs an emergency evacuation route, building a road that connects 620/2222 with 183 via Spicewood Springs Road is not the answer.
“The additional traffic on Spicewood Springs Road would become a daily struggle for Canyon Vista Middle School,” she said. “There might be some congestion relief on 620 and/or 2222 but it would increase traffic along Spicewood Springs Road. The Spicewood Springs/Hwy183 intersection already backs up many blocks with the current traffic, so the additional traffic could easily backup all the way to CVMS. It would also add traffic to residential areas when drivers try to cut through neighborhood roads to avoid that intersection.”
She said it is upsetting that Zimmerman has little regard for the environmental impact of the project.
“This is a very fragile ecosystem and a new road would have irreversible impact on BCP, especially Bull Creek,” she said.
Zimmerman said he expects the project to face both support and opposition moving forward.
“I don’t really have a feel for what the political battle is going to be,” he said. “The project needs to be done. We need road expansion and we need some wildfire mitigation.”