The City Should Tell All

The letter below by Ross Hunter was printed in our newspaper of record, the Williamson County Sun, on May 24, 2017.

To The Editor – May 24th, 2017

Your reporting on the Austin Avenue bridges is welcome, but only half the story is being told, because the city is hiding the other half from you and the public. For example, the bridges are safe, but the city and its PR firm have cultivated a widespread fear that they are unsafe. TxDOT a year ago gave the city written approval to raise the load limit back up to 68,000 pounds. But instead of rejoicing, the city took steps to prevent the increased load limit from becoming public knowledge.

And so a false myth was created, and has been reinforced as recently as this month, that there are “structural deficiencies” with the bridges. This is false. The term “Deficient” is a clear technical designation based on TxDOT safety inspections, and the city knows this, and knows that the bridges stand high above this designation. I was present as a Consulting Party in August 2016 when TxDOT made the city and its consulting engineer, Aguirre & Fields, stop using this designation. And yet, these false terms persist in the latest city literature.

The city asks for feedback by May 26 on the 5 alternatives presented at its recent Open House. My formal feedback will be to challenge much of the city’s narrative, to ask a multitude of questions, and to request publication of the city’s workings, which they have kept hidden from us. It took an Open Records Request, against fierce resistance from the city, simply to get a list of the 12 options that Nat Waggoner announced publicly for the first time last October. And at that time he also assured council that he would present all 12 options to the public, with details on each one. Instead, we see our choices narrowed to 5, without any public involvement whatsoever.

Where are the workings that eliminated the other 7 options? Who decided that a turn lane was required, feeding a push to widen the bridges? Was a turn light even considered? Were there conflicts of interest during this process? Who’s pushing to spend all this money on new steel and concrete, when the standing materials of the bridges are in such fine shape (although disgracefully ill-maintained by the city in recent years?

We face a situation on Austin Avenue where we could easily build a bridge to nowhere, a boondoggle. This, of all projects, requires absolute transparency and trustworthiness. And yet we pay a PR firm to help massage the data, and the result is that we know nothing.

Townspeople should best choose Option 6a to add a new pedestrian bridge and to resume maintenance on the existing bridges. But even as we do this, we are being cheated, denied involvement in the full choosing process. If the city could break out of its group-think, and open the project up to the townspeople, we could discover what factors eliminated Option 6b, the pedestrian bridge on the west side.

We could actually enlarge the thinking and talk about pedestrian bridges on both sides of the existing bridges. After all, we have a Downtown Plan that leverages historic structures into a prime, pedestrian-friendly destination spot. These bridges are historic structures, and they can become a superb gateway to the downtown destination, for automobiles, pedestrians and bicyclists.

But none of this long-standing vision of the people of Georgetown will be allowed into the bridges project until the city is forced to make the process transparent. The Downtown Resource Council, a citizen initiative focused on downtown historic development, and which I chair, will join with many other townspeople currently locked in a struggle with the city to create transparency and public involvement in the bridges project. I hope our newspaper of record will soon be able to see updates on our progress in this endeavor.

Ross Hunter