Bike bridges open, linking South Austin to Zilker Park

5:09 p.m Wednesday, June 14, 2017 Local
The centerpiece of the complex of three bridges and concrete trails is a 1,045-foot-long span over the Barton Creek gorge just on the east side of MoPac Boulevard, seen here on Wednesday.

It just got a whole lot easier to commute by bike from Southwest Austin to downtown.

Driving should be better by Thursday morning as well, at least across a specific stretch of South MoPac Boulevard.

The string of three bicycle and pedestrian bridges alongside South MoPac where it crosses Loop 360 and Barton Creek opened Wednesday morning after almost a decade of discussion and preparation, 3½ years of construction, a midproject redesign and a final delay for lighting.

Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman
The bicycle and pedestrian bridge over the Barton Creek gorge next to MoPac Boulevard on Wednesday June 14, 2017. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Then, as Wednesday turned into Thursday, the Texas Department of Transportation planned to add striping for a third lane along about 3,000 feet of southbound MoPac. TxDOT chipped in $4.4 million toward the $14.5 million bike-and-pedestrian bridge project so it could reclaim a highway lane from nervy cyclists, who for years had used the shoulder of southbound MoPac to cross the bridge.

Overnight, agency crews were scheduled to restripe the road from just south of Loop 360 to the south end of the Barton Creek highway bridge, narrowing the road’s shoulders in the course of adding a lane for vehicles. That would have the effect of removing a pinch-point where southbound MoPac for decades has temporarily narrowed from three lanes to two.

The agency in the overnight hours later this week plans to repave that stretch as well, officials said.

Below the highway bridge and well to the north, meanwhile, the new bike-and-pedestrian path crosses Loop 360 with two short spans, then leaps over the Barton Creek gorge with a 1,045-foot-long bridge. Those bridges over Loop 360, and connecting trails to the north and south, have been complete for at least a year. But opening the full complex of bridges and trails, at least officially, had to wait on final work on the long bridge over the creek.

A lane line divides northbound and southbound traffic on the concrete path, which curves, climbs, swoops and rolls for more than a mile, at one point towering 70 feet above the creek.

Cyclists have waited a long time for the project’s completion, which aside from the TxDOT money was also paid for by about $7.5 million in city of Austin money and a $2.5 million federal grant.

Jay Janner/American-Statesman Staff
A construction worker with Austin Bridge and Road Co. removes a barricade on the bicycle and pedestrian bridge over the Barton Creek gorge next to MoPac Boulevard on Wednesday.

Construction on the 14-foot-wide path, first suggested in 2005, began in early 2014. Crews encountered problems along the way, including deeper bedrock than expected that forced them to redesign the bridge footings, resulting in a 155-day hiatus in construction. Then, when the bridge appeared to be nearly finished, officials discovered that the design had lighting but insufficient wiring. That led to more redesign and installation, and more delay.

Proponents of the project say the route will encourage people who wouldn’t brave the access roads of MoPac on their bicycles to pedal into the city center. Until now, the only way to get from MoPac south of Barton Creek on a bike northbound was to join highway traffic on the bridge over the creek, which in that direction has four lanes and virtually no shoulder. Southbound cyclists at least had the wide shoulder on the highway bridge, but the crossing still required confidence and steady nerves.

Now the trail and bridges will provide easy, protected access from Southwest Austin to Barton Springs, Zilker Park and the Butler Hike and Bike Trail around Lady Bird Lake. It’s now possible to bicycle in a protected lane or sidewalk from U.S. 290 all the way to the river.

“Reaching the southwest part of Travis County has been a challenge for the cycling community for years,” says Hill Abell, owner of Bicycle Sport Shop. “The new MoPac bicycle bridge will open up, in a safe accessible manner, to all levels of cyclists, this growing part of town.”

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