Obstacles to Sidewalk Implementation on US 183 in Northwest Austin


a Lovely Traipse Down The Frontage Road And Through The Reactionary Thinking Of TXDOT

by Mike Dahmus Age 32

Written some time in 2004, I think

Several times in the last few years, local politicians of the right-wing bent and their radio backers have called into question the 15% bicycle-pedestrian set-aside 'rule' for a small subcategory of spending administered by the local MPO, CAMPO. (I was interviewed by KLBJ-AM on this subject many months ago). When all road spending is taken into account, this set-aside ends up being only one or two percent of the total, but that never stops it from coming up agagin; and most people who might otherwise support increased funding of bicycle and pedestrian projects find it difficult to understand why 15% of even this one category of Federal gas tax money isn't more than should be spent when far less than 15% of the travel in the region occurs via these modes.

The following tour is an example of why 15% of this one small category (1 to 2 percent of the total) is, in fact, not only reasonable, but arguably not enough.

US 183 is a part of the state highway system (yes, even US and Interstate highways are really state roadways) which has been upgraded, piecemeal, several times in places, from a typical direct-access suburban highway to a typical Texas freeway with frontage roads (preserving existing property access). The particular part of US 183 under discussion today was upgraded from a 6-lane divided roadway (with traffic lights) to a 6-lane freeway (plus 3 lane frontage roads on each side) in the early 1990s, long after the corridor was built out with office buildings, retail centers, etc. It also happens to be where I work (and where most of my offices in Austin have been located).

My office complex is located between the current US 183 and Jollyville Road (which actually was once the location of US 183 when it was a much smaller road; this road is now owned and maintained by the City of Austin). Let's follow a trip I took to the strip mall on the corner at Braker Lane (the strip mall fills completely the space between US 183 and Jollyville, as does my office). This trip takes less than five minutes by foot. I do it every so often; but I'm a pedestrian zealot - most people will not take this trip, and you'll soon see why. Hint: It's not because of the distance or the weather.

This corridor also has frequent (for the suburbs) local and express transit service, including bus stops right on US 183 (although not in this immediate section - both routes use Jollyville between Balcones Woods and Braker Lane).

Click on images for bigger versions. The most interesting images will be shown here in a 'medium' size; less interesting in a small size; both link to large pictures for more detail.

Exiting the office complex

Leaving parking garageThe parking garage for my office complex exits in a sidewalk (probably legally still private property, but I see people using the parking lot and then this sidewalk who obviously don't work here).

Start of journey

Start of sidewalkShot of the sidewalk which heads out to where a normal city sidewalk would be (next to the frontage road).

Public right-of-way vs. actual sidewalk

Leaving parking garageThis roughly shows the dilemna that a pedestrian faces even at this relatively benign part of the journey. Clearly continuing on the concrete walk takes you into what is obviously private property (surface parking next to the parking garage), yet there's no sidewalk leading along the roadway. (yellow lines clumsily added by yours truly).

More lack of sidewalk

Leaving parking garageStill not a bad stretch here - unless you're in a wheelchair. No curb ramp means your choice here is to go into the traffic lane.

Old parking lot

Leaving parking garageWhile approaching Cox Furniture Sales (building you see ahead in the previous picture), one sees some old pavement, probably from the old parking lot, which in other spots along US 183 has been ripped up or allowed to degrade -- this shows that parts of existing properties were condemned and used to expand the footprint of the roadway when it was upgraded to a freeway in the early 1990s. The strip mall at Balcones Woods and my office complex both have odd parking lot fragments in front which hint at such history. Anyways, one can see that when the roadway needed to be expanded in the early 1990s, TXDOT (as is their practice, using money both from their gas tax and money obtained from the local city government) acquired right-of-way. Note that the local government (in this case the City of Austin) had to use general funds or bond funds for this purpose - city/county governments in Texas cannot by law levy or receive funds from gasoline taxes. No sidewalks were built at this time, as you can obviously tell. People who don't even own cars paid a good chunk of their property taxes and sales taxes to the city of Austin to pay off bonds that were floated for the 'local contribution' to TXDOT for these right-of-way costs. (This practice continues; the largest two single items in recent memory on city bond elections were right-of-way contributions for state highway projects such as SH 130 - and TXDOT isn't building sidewalks with that money either).

Evidence of pedestrian activity

Leaving parking garageThis well-trod path (too narrow for wheelchairs, as if any could navigate these slopes) goes by Cox. Note the utilities right in the middle of where the sidewalk would go, if the City of Austin decided to build a sidewalk here (since TXDOT didn't and won't). This means that in order to fix this segment, at a minimum, the city would have to scrape away the hill, relocate the utilities, and build a retaining wall so that Cox doesn't collapse. Wonder why there's no sidewalks here? Could there have been a time when this could have been done more cheaply?

Hooray for TXDOT

Leaving parking garagePassing Cox and approaching a gas station which clearly lost a lot of its real estate to the highway, we come to an even worse pedestrian path. The yellow lines indicate where a sidewalk would be built, and notice the utilities still in the way. The only path available today is to dance on the two-feet-wide grass strip to the left of the pole while cars whiz by at 50 mph, or hike up the slope to the right (not trivial, even for this relatively healthy 32-year-old - I've slipped here on more than one occasion). If the city wanted to build a sidewalk here, I see no way to do it other than to completely condemn the gas station and start over. Of course, in 2004, that would be prohibitively expensive compared to what it would have cost to take the whole thing in the early 1990s (instead of just the half they DID take).

Gas more important than pedestrians

Leaving parking garageThat's the only possible explanation for this sad picture.

Encouragement to lose weight

Leaving parking garageIf you're a really skinny pedestrian, here's a place for you to walk! (south end of the gas station). Well, until you get to the parked vehicles, that is. After that, walk on the slope and try not to slip into 50 mph frontage road traffic.

Side street

Leaving parking garageHamilton St. is a small stub of a road that was orphaned when the road was upgraded to freeway status. Note the reappearance of our old friend the sidewalk on the other side. Also note the faint crosswalk painted here. Hooray for mixed messages!

Sidewalk reappears!

Leaving parking garageOnce you cross Hamilton St., the sidewalk actually shows up again. Was this built by TXDOT or the city? Nope; it was built by the developer of the strip mall (by city code, most new development on arterial roadways requires the developer to include sidewalks; so you get a lot of sidewalk segments like this one). Note the last point here - pedestrians take the path of least resistance, so you might as well pave that one instead of meandering all over the place.

Conclusions and Misc

gas station looking northbound It's pretty clear by now where I'm going with this. If the state had just built the damn sidewalks in the early 1990s, they could have been done with minimal cost and disruption. But since the state has a pathological hatred of anything other than the automobile, they not only DIDN'T build the sidewalks; they didn't even save ROOM for the sidewalks. They took the worst possible path if you were ever interested in pedestrian safety - they left the responsibility up to the city, and then didn't condemn enough land to actually make paying for sidewalks remotely feasible (as it is on certain other TXDOT projects like I-35 north).

cox looking northbound Those of you who think 15% (really 1-2%) is "too much" should bear this in mind: 15% (really 1-2%) is NOT ENOUGH to pay to fix this situation. The funds allocated by that one lonely category of federal gas tax money (matched with 20-50% local funds out of property and sales taxes) can pay for simple sidewalks like the ones the city put in along I-35 north of US 183. But they'll never pay for the acquisition and demolition of these two properties, the utility relocation, the retaining wall, etc.

And this was only about a quarter of a mile of sidewalk missing here. Imagine what it would take to fill ALL these gaps.

Finally, what about Jollyville Road? The city is indeed paying to build sidewalks there - little to no condemnation will be required, although a drainage ditch makes this fairly expensive work as well. The money's already been allocated by both the locals and the feds; I expect to see something happen in a year or two.