Austin Avenue Bridges Project Position Paper
Georgetown Neighborhood Alliance Position Paper
The Austin Avenue Bridges Project – 2016.1
The City of Georgetown has reached a critical juncture in its ongoing study of options to repair or replace the historic Austin Avenue bridges that span the San Gabriel River immediately north of the Downtown Square retail district.
Recently completed engineering and forensic studies show that both bridges, although in need of long-overdue repairs, are safe and structurally sound. According to these studies, proper repairs will extend the functional life of the bridges by several decades, preserving these historically significant structures for future generations. Furthermore, construction of new bridges would require the complete closure of Austin Avenue for an extended period (possibly 24-36 months), resulting in potentially devastating impact to the Downtown Square retail district.
Given the strong evidence of a safe and viable repair option, coupled with the potential damage that construction disruption would cause to the Downtown Square, the Georgetown Neighborhood Alliance strongly urges the Georgetown City Council to exclusively adopt a strategy to repair the Austin Avenue bridges. The Alliance recommends that the Council eliminate Option 1 (Do Nothing) and Option 4 (Replace the bridges) from the City’s plans.
The Alliance believes that there are three key issues that must be addressed with regard to the Austin Avenue Bridges Project:
- Public Safety – first and foremost is the need to ensure that any bridge solution must provide adequate safety to the public, including the ability of emergency vehicles such as large fire trucks to safely cross the bridges.
- The long-term viability of the historic Downtown Square retail district must be ensured through any construction scenario. Similar construction projects have devastated other historic shopping and business districts such as Salado, TX.
- The historic nature of the bridges. Both bridges qualify (but are not currently listed on) the National Registry of Historic Places. As such, disposition of the bridges is regulated by Section 106 of the National Preservation Act of 1966.
A significant amount of information is available to support the recommended Alliance position to repair and not replace the bridges:
The bridges are safe and strong:
- Safe – the bridges are safe and are not structurally deficient as stated by the City’s Engineer during various community meetings. The 2013 TxDOT BRINSAP Report rated both bridges at Grade 5. The Structurally Deficient rating applies specifically to Grade 4 and below.
- Strong – The City’s current posted weight restrictions of 48,000 pounds understate the bridges’ actual load capacity. TxDOT lifted the load limit of the Bridges to 68,000 pounds on May 2, 2016. Furthermore, the WJE Steel Forensics Report (Sept. 2, 2016) has recommended that the load capacity be increased to 79,000 pounds.
Repair of the existing bridges is a viable option. In three separate reports, consulting engineers hired by the City have confirmed that the functional life of both bridges can be extended by several decades by making repairs (WJE Report January 12, 2016; URS Report May 23, 2016 and LAN Report June 29, 2016).
Replacement of the existing bridges will require complete closure of Austin Avenue for an extended period of time. The Alliance recently asked the City Staff via email if replacement of the bridges would require the total closure of Austin Avenue. The City Staff’s reply was:
“independent review of the forensic study #1, completed by URS earlier this year does conclude, “the deck will probably have to be replaced to the current width. This does not allow for increasing the width of the vehicular lanes and sidewalks. Under this assumption, this does not allow for keeping at least two lanes open on the bridge during replacement…detours would be required.”
City Staff has indicated that actual construction time for new bridges is not yet known. However, the Alliance believes that construction projects of this scope will take 18 to 36 months to complete. The Alliance calls on the City to elaborate on the details of any anticipated construction timeframes, along with the potential impact to downtown businesses.
Replacement will likely result in serious economic impact to the Downtown Square retail district. The extended closure of Austin Avenue during bridge replacement, along with subsequent detours, will have serious impacts on the viability of the Downtown Square.
A quick look north to our neighboring community of Salado will show the possible impact of major construction detours on historic shopping districts such as Georgetown. During the extended construction of I-35 near Salado, a total of 82 of their 127 businesses have closed, according to their mayor. (http://www.texasmonthly.com/articles/the-road-work-goes-on-forever/). Downtown Georgetown should never be faced with a similar fate as our neighbors in Salado.
The Alliance strongly urges the Georgetown City Council to repair, not replace, the Austin Avenue bridges. We take this position for three primary reasons:
- The bridges are already structurally sound and safe – The engineering and forensics reports from Aguirre-Fields’ independent forensic engineers (WJE, LAN & URS) have stated that the internal structures of both bridges are currently in satisfactory condition; and with proper repair and maintenance the bridges will safely function for decades. Furthermore, TxDOT recently increased the maximum load rating for both bridges from 48,000 pounds to 68,000 pounds, which restores them to their original load ratings. This was further substantiated by the WJE Steel Forensics Report (Sept. 2, 2016), which recommended a load rating of 79,000 pounds.
- Repair and maintenance of the bridges will be significantly less disruptive to the Downtown retail district than total replacement. Repairing the bridges will not require long-term closure of Austin Avenue, whereas replacement of the bridges will require complete closure of Austin Avenue for potentially 18-36 months. The traffic detours would likely devastate the historic Downtown Square in a manner similar to the disruption that the current I-35 project has caused to downtown Salado, TX. Long-term bridge closures will also negatively impact the historic Old Town residential neighborhood due to significantly increased traffic from Austin Avenue detours.
- The historic nature of the bridges will be preserved. This will also enhance the historic character of the entire Downtown Georgetown area.
About the Georgetown Neighborhood Alliance
The Georgetown Neighborhood Alliance is a citizen project, focused on growth-related issues that affect the City of Georgetown and its neighborhoods. The Alliance is staffed by volunteers from Georgetown neighborhoods and businesses. The overall goals of the Alliance are to ensure that Georgetown residents are informed about the issues and that their voices are heard.
You can reach the Alliance here:
On the Web: www.alliancegeorgetown.org