Austin considers improvements to Walsh Boat Landing

7:46 p.m Monday, Dec. 29, 2014 Local

In summer months, the Walsh Boat Landing is a sought-after launch pad for party boats, ski boats and personal watercraft.

But due to its popular location 3 miles west of downtown, and the low water levels on Lake Travis, the landing on Lake Austin has become crowded with boats and cars fighting for limited parking and dock space. Flooding has also eroded the shoreline.

Austin’s parks department is deciding how to improve the landing with an expected $666,000 state grant (including some matching local dollars) and has held several public meetings to gauge the best way to revamp the area, with the final meeting set for Jan. 13.

Jeff Larsen, a parks ground manager for the city, said the grant would go toward reinforcing the shoreline, installing new retaining walls, enhancing the dock itself and adding disability-compliant parking. Larsen said the city is also considering whether to more closely regulate the commercial use of the city-owned landing.

“Walsh landing is the only access point at this end of the lake,” said Gene Smith, the owner of Austin Party Cruises. “With the city growing as much as it has been, and probably will continue to, more and more pressure is put on that area for access to the lake. It will continue to get worse.”

The only other city-owned boat launch is at Emma Long Metropolitan Park, which is west of Capital of Texas Highway (Loop 360).

Neighbors say the ramp is overcrowded with traffic from commercial businesses. According to city records, at least 11 boat businesses use the Walsh landing as their passenger access point. Some rent large party boats that can accommodate up to 75 people, while others rent small boats or personal watercraft on an hourly basis.

Rob Williams, an executive at Dell Inc., has lived in the Tarrytown neighborhood adjacent to the Walsh landing for 30 years. He’s seen firsthand the parking issues, with visitors to the boat landing parking on nearby residential streets until the city erected permit-only signs. But he’s also a recreational boater who takes out his ski boat on weekends. Because the landing is so crowded, he goes out at dawn, returning around 9:30 a.m.

“When I come in, there will be one or two of those party boats,” Williams said. “Some are 50 and 60 feet long.”

Demand for space at the Walsh landing is “pretty close to out-of-control” on summer weekends, he said. “It’s really frustrating to the average user that wants to launch their own boat.”

Neighbors are pushing for the city to take a more active role in regulating the landing, such as issuing permits or limiting dock time.

“If it were up to me there would be no commercial use at Walsh,” said Blake Tollett, another longtime Tarrytown resident who is irked by the trash, congestion and parking issues at the landing.

Business boat owners acknowledge that the congestion and deterioration at the Walsh landing have become problems. Smith, the Austin Party Cruises owner, said docking at Walsh has become a free-for-all with no assigned spots.

While Smith said he conducts no transactions or business solicitations at the landing, he is open to some type of permitting process if it could earmark money to pay for more Walsh landing improvements.

Smith also pushed for other solutions, such as a full-time traffic and parking manager, a parking garage and more dock space using narrow “finger” docks.

The city expects to bring some ideas to the Jan. 13 meeting, 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at O. Henry Middle School, with a full roll-out of an improvement plan in about six months, Larsen said.

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