KXAN Austin

Travis County chooses to build shorter, cheaper gated road as new evacuation route for Steiner Ranch

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Nearly eight years after a massive wildfire in the Steiner Ranch neighborhood, Travis County commissioners chose a new evacuation route to get homeowners safely and quickly out of the neighborhood during the next emergency.

The Travis County Commissioners Court voted unanimously Tuesday to move forward with building a gated road that can only be opened by first responders during an evacuation between Flat Top Ranch Road and Montview Drive.

County engineers and staff members studied 12 possible emergency evacuation routes and gathered community feedback on the plans during the past year. The county commissioners discussed two of the strongest options Tuesday.

Route B, the gated road, is a shorter route and the least expensive, costing approximately $980,000. It will allow 750 cars through an hour in an evacuation, according to county estimates.

Terry Witt and some of his neighbors on Montview Drive argued against Route B Tuesday morning. They told commissioners that their street would be problematic during an evacuation without more improvements included in the county’s plan.

“It’s got multiple curves and turns. It’s a narrow road, no sidewalks, a cattle guard and a low water crossing,” Witt explained. “That, to me, doesn’t make a very effective evacuation route when people are tense and want to get the heck out.”

The commissioners considered another option called Route F, which would have connected Flat Top Ranch Road with RM 620 by a longer two-lane road open to public use at any time. However, county leaders said Tuesday that they did not have the $7.2 million needed to pay for that proposal.

Some neighbors also voiced their opposition to this route’s path because it would have come close to a park in the neighborhood and cut through a coveted greenbelt behind dozens of homes.

David Greear, the Travis County assistant public works director in the engineering division, told KXAN that Route B was the recommended plan not only by county staff members, but also from “a majority of neighbors that wanted the gated-only option.”

Greear has been involved with studying the possible routes, and said he personally knows the need for a Steiner Ranch evacuation road because he lived there during the wildfire.

After studying all the options, he said the preferred Route B “would have less traffic cutting through the neighborhood and less impact on a daily basis because it would only be used in an emergency evacuation.”

When asked if first responders were on board with opening the gate and deciding when to do so in an emergency, Greear said, “The emergency personnel will have a plan in place to know when to open the gate, where to send people and how to direct traffic.”

He reassured neighbors concerned with the gated option that “we have several of these gates around this county that emergency personnel have access to, and they are comfortable with those.”

Travis County commissioners were told funds are in place to build the evacuation road in Route B, and it should be completed by the summer of 2021.

After the vote Tuesday, Brian Thompto, the chairman for the Steiner Ranch Neighborhood Association, told KXAN that he’s “cautiously optimistic” about what this decision means going forward. He said the county will now need to make improvements to Montview Drive to facilitate safe, orderly evacuations in the future.

Thompto said county leaders told the crowd Tuesday that they’d like to potentially have more discussions about the implementation of the new evacuation route now that this proposal has officially been selected. It’s unclear when those additional discussions will happen at the Commissioners Court.