By LYNETTE HAALAND, Four Points News
More than 150 people crowded into Towne Square Community Center on Dec. 11 as residents from Steiner Ranch and surrounding areas listened to Travis County’s presentation about the top three proposed evacuation routes that are now on the table for consideration. Community members asked questions and gave feedback after a presentation.
Route F — the only route that is also a permanent option — was presented on Dec. 5 as the county’s top choice at a meeting in Steiner with residents who live near the proposed route F path. Residents who use the Westridge fields and park were also at the meeting since F would greatly affect that area.
But after overwhelmingly negative feedback on Dec. 5 on the subject of a permanent road, the county is slowing down the process and pulled together the Dec. 11 meeting in short order in an effort to get more community feedback.
Lately the county shared that more funds are needed to build an evacuation road than the originally passed $2.7 million. That is one reason the Dec. 5 presentation focused on route F.
Creating a permanent road would allow the project to be eligible for funds from other sources such as Texas Department of Transportation and Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization or CAMPO, according to Brigid Shea, Precinct Two County Commissioner. She spoke at the Dec. 11 meeting.
At the Dec. 11 meeting, the county brought back a couple more options into consideration and now is considering routes B, G and F. Each of these routes were presented with pros and cons by Steven Widacki, engineer from M&S Engineering.
“We want to put more lanes on the ground so more people can get out faster,” Widacki said. “By January, we would like a recommended route.”
Brian Thompto, chairman of Steiner Ranch Neighborhood Association, moderated the Dec. 11 meeting which was hosted by SRNA.
Widacki was working through the presentation and after some 45 minutes, residents were noticeably ready to share their comments.“Why do you keep skirting the issues? The reason so many people are here today is that we are exceptionally concerned about how route F will impact traffic, safety of our kids and the park,” said one resident. The comment received applause.
At another point as the presentation continued, Jim Eagle asked if “we could start talking about the elephant in the room/”
When it was time for questions, the vast majority of comments from the community — which included people sitting on the floor as well as standing outside because the room was beyond capacity — were against a permanent road being built. Many of the residents who commented were in favor of an evacuation-only road.
Some residents said they needed more information before making up their mind on permanent vs emergency-only.
Resident David Voelkel said that a permanent road would affect his property value negatively.
“How will you offset home costs. If my home value drops 40 percent, what do I do then,” he asked.
One resident pointed out that it looked like one of the other top routes being considered seemed to be much shorter and would go through an empty lot in Montview. But another commented that the owner of that lot has plans to build a home there.
“At the meeting there was an indication by a resident in attendance that option B may not be viable due to owner plans to build, we will see if the county replaces this option with an alternate,” Thompto said after the meeting.
Other people asked why is an evacuation route so expensive when a caliche road could do just fine in a true emergency.
“(If the evacuation project needs more money,) why can’t we get funding like a bond within Steiner, to help pay for this,” asked Amy Franklin.
Widacki talked about how the northwest portion of Steiner is the only option to put in another road. The east has preserve land and terrain issues, and putting a tall and long bridge over Lake Austin “would cost multiples of tens of millions of dollars, as much as $50 million,” he said.
Another resident asked for the county to expand the park if route F is chosen.
The county indicated that it could and that it also could make sure Westridge Park has a parking lot. Parking has been brought up as a concern at the park.
Traffic analysis has to be done when school is in session to get an accurate depiction of traffic during most of the year, said Kathy Hardin, the engineer with Travis County Transportation & Natural Resources Capital Improvement Projects who is in charge of the project.
Hardin also said that route F was endorsed by Leander ISD as it would be helpful in busing students.
Steiner HOA board comments
Christina Morales, a member of the Steiner Ranch Master Association HOA board, was at the meeting.
“As an HOA, our goal is to get a safe path for our residents with the least minimal impact,” Morales said.
Morales thinks a survey is needed to get feedback from the entire community, and that more traffic studies are needed.
“We are definitely, as an HOA, concerned with the lack of communication, lack of planning and how fast it happened,” she said. She has attended several meetings with the county about this project.
“Do we want a road? Absolutely. Is this the right one for Steiner? We don’t know yet,” Morales said.
Morales points out that land along side the proposed routes are not owned by Steiner, portions are but not all. For example in route F, some land is owned by Travis County and some by Lower Colorado River Authority.
“So we don’t have control. Development affects all of Steiner. If that is the route to go with, we need to work out the best deal for Steiner and maybe have an option to purchase the rest of the land. Development is not what anyone wants in this community,” Morales said.
The SRMA board has discussed using funds to upgrade Towne Square in recent months and other options in Steiner, but Morales said “we need to see the outcome of this first.”
“We may need funds to help that community (around the proposed route) and do what we can to make them feel safe,” she said. “We may need extra money if we need to fix this.”
Brad Stanton, also a member of the SRMA board who lives in and represents the Westridge section of Steiner, was at the meeting.
“As the district 2 representative, I am absolutely against any permanent road proceeding through district 2 but do favor a temporary road at the lowest cost possible,” Stanton said.
The board plans to send out a notification as early as Monday, Dec. 17 to the community that the board is engaging Travis County and Commissioner Shea on a resolution.
Evacuation plan for Steiner
Emergency service officials were in attendance at the Dec. 11 meeting from the sheriff’s office and fire department. They admit that now there is an actual plan in place for a more efficient evacuation since the 2011 fires in Steiner. They did not have one then and they were stretched thin then also as the region had multiple fires to work on at that time.
The Steiner emergency evacuation plan includes the use of contra flow traffic (using inbound lanes for outbound flow), managing RM 620 traffic and signals better and closing through traffic to RM 620 where needed. Emergency officials also shared ideas on not evacuating an entire neighborhood unless residents are in a dangerous section. They said Longhorn Village and the four Leander ISD school campuses are safe places to refuge in place.
“The county will meet next week to determine next steps,” said Hardin.
This information will also be placed at the project webpage.
Travis County plans to continue to gather comments from the community.
It will hold an open house in January or February, a rescheduling of the cancelled Dec. 18 open house.
After that, It will take comments, feedback and analysis to the Travis County Commissioner’s Court for their vote on the preferred route.
The county then plans to design the preferred route in May 2019 and start purchasing the right of way in July 2019. Construction could start in 2021 or 2022.
The project has been in the works for years since the 2011 fires that destroyed 23 homes in Steiner. The project was approved $2.7 million in funding in early 2017.
At that time, there was one route proposed from Flat Top Ranch Road to Fritz Hughes Park Road through the Montview community next to Steiner. Officials then said it would be that route or something similar.
But since then 12 route options were created and presented at an open house in Steiner on Aug. 9.