A Concrete Human Highway IN Our River? No. YES! And Why You Oughtta Care

A Concrete Human Highway IN Our River? No. YES! And Why You Oughtta Care

Part 1 of 2 Parts – The Overview

If you browsed the Austin American-Statesman or Austin Business Journal yesterday, no doubt you saw the headlines:

“$16 million boardwalk leads Austin bond proposal. City releases draft list of $84.8 million in transportation projects for possible November election.” (AAS)

“City unveils $85M bond package” (ABJ)

At first glance, it might sound like an appealing proposition, this Boardwalk project.  What’s not to like?

A sample "Boardwalk" you may envision.

Or maybe something like this.

The term “boardwalk” itself conjures up images of a pretty little wooden footbridge traversing burbling creeks and meandering through soggy sections of beautiful dense forest.  It’s a project of the Parks Department, and we all do love our parks, yes?

Finding a way to “extend” Downtown Austin’s wonderful riverfront hike-bike path through one of the sections where it currently follows a narrow sidewalk along a busy road, Riverside Drive — well, that sounds like a no-brainer, too, right?  At least to those of us who frequent the Town Lake Trail multiple times a week.

(Sidenote for those of you paying attention: City Council changed the name of the urban portion of the river from Town Lake to Lady Bird Lake after the former First Lady and Trail Founder passed away in 2007.  The name of “the simple walking path along the shore” that she envisioned back in 1971 is still called the Town Lake Trail in Parks Department materials.  Hard to tell what to properly call it.)

And $85 million, though it’s a big number for a still-sluggish economic recovery, nevertheless is a comparatively small chunk of change when you apply that spend against a truckload of “transportation projects”.  Concrete and asphalt don’t come cheap.

To find the serious problems in this equation I’m afraid there’s no substitute for having to dive into the details.  As with so many of life’s problems and issues, that’s where the devil is hiding.  Let’s take a look.

First off there’s the topline math.  $16 million for a single project — one that is a luxury add and carries no financial ROI with it — out of a total $85 million bonding capacity.  That’s almost one-fifth of the total ask!  For just one project.  According to the ABJ story, the Transportation Department and the Bond Review Task Force were charged with evaluating 500 projects that had to be divided into “A,” “B” and “C” categories.

The “A” list of “highest priority” projects added up to about 45 and still carried an estimated total cost between $2 billion and $3 billion, three to four times the total bonding capacity.  Somehow the Boardwalk, in its totality, made it to the further shortened list of  “A” projects left standing.  What about the other 480 or so projects?  What about all the other regions of the city and their transportation, sidewalk, pothole and trail needs?

Then there is the matter of the Boardwalk project itself.  While it hasn’t been an entirely secretive endeavor, its details have been less than well publicized or understood by the broad Austin citizenry, that’s for sure.  For the past three years, this project has been marching its determined way through the city conceptual and design process, rubber-stamped by two unanimous city councils every step of the way, and fueled by almost $4.3 million in dedicated allocations out of the past couple city budgets.  For the past year, that’s been a reported spend rate of about $40,000 per week for consultants, plans and documentation.

Next let’s check out this purported Boardwalk and find out what it’s really made of using the City’s own slides from its presentation decks.  The following pictures are quite self-explanatory.





How can this be?

There are no boards in this boardwalk!

The entire battleship structure is made of concrete and steel!

And it’s out IN the friggin’ river!

And that, friends, is how we end up with something like THIS rather than the “simple walking path along the shore” that Lady Bird Johnson had sought.

Can’t help but wonder: what would she think of all this?

Though about a year out of date now, what information the city has provided on this project can be found here.  There is some bare bones stuff there about the proposed routing, construction materials and answers to about 20 FAQs. Check it out.

In Part 2 of this story I’ll tell you about:  The Top 5 Issues of Concern about the Boardwalk project.
Finally, in Part 3 we’ll contemplate some other realities about our crown jewel community asset, the Town Lake Trail, that may finally be time to come to grips with: bicycles vs. pedestrians.
About Fred Schmidt

Fred Schmidt is co-owner, with wife and business partner, Shelley Meyer, of longtime Downtown Austin retail stores Wild About Music Art & Gift Gallery (26 years) on Congress Ave, and Toy Joy (29 years) and Austin Rocks (5 years) in the 2nd Street District. Concurrently he is also Director of International Affairs at Capital Factory, Austin’s premier incubator/accelerator facility for startups, already located in the proposed new Innovation District in the northeast quadrant of Downtown. He has served as a past board member of the Downtown Austin Alliance (DAA), the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association (DANA), and 6ixth Street Austin. He thinks this is one of the best places in the world to live, work and play! Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not reflect the positions of any affiliated organizations.


  1. I think the rest areas could be enhanced by making space for planting zones for small trees and flowers. What do you think?

  2. “$16 million for a single project — one that is a luxury add and carries no financial ROI with it….”

    How is this transportation and recreational facility any less likely to provide a financial ROI than any other City of Austin road project? It’s not as if people driving cars pay for the Austin roads via user fees. Even state (TxDOT jurisdiction) roads are not completely covered by car user fees.

    As for ROI, perhaps try using your favorite internet search engine to look for “ROI bike ped”?
    Maybe these links will help:

  3. Many folks agree that we need shade on the boardwalk and in response to public input, the design team developed shade structures after the images were put on the City website. These design updates will be presented in the near future.

    Lynn Currie, board member, The Trail Foundation

  4. Fred,
    You may want to be more clear in the actual text of your commentary about this impacting your property and your opposition for that reason. I never noticed that or made the connection in your “author block” and so was surprised by this fact in one of the comments. It seems like something you should put out front so that it is abundantly clear to readers.

    • Bliz: My concern about this project and opposition to it have nothing whatsoever to do with my tiny sliver of property ownership — which, again, I gladly make available to accommodate a waterfront trail, and providing we can all make a good case together to help enlighten my neighbors and other property owners to what a fine solution that could be. There is loads of supporting evidence from other places where this has been done. It’s just never been tailored yet for Austin and those conversations have never been had.

      I would feel the exact same way about this “Boardwalk” if this same structure were proposed to built on the other side of the river or anywhere else on the open waters of Lady Bird Lake – except as a north-south traversing bridge (like Pfluger), which truly is the only way to “get across”, and a second one will eventually be needed down at Longhorn Dam.

      I know this is hard to assimilate and accept, but it happens to be the truth. I just believe that we, as an Austin community, can do much better with this solution than unnecessarily invading a half mile of great shoreline with an over-water concrete road.

      It’s not even an “environmental” concern, per se. It’s an aesthetic one. At a time when so many cities are ripping out waterfront hugging freeways and antiquated industrial docking uses to return the shorelines to green space, Austin is proposing to do just the opposite. This simply makes no sense. True, it is the most expedient and convenient solution, but also the most expensive and invasive. And, yes, addressing this issue has been “talked about” by some parks and trails folks for a couple decades. But until 2007, no actual real work or analysis has ever been done. And, in that effort, the “research” was pre-ordained to support the desired conclusion of simply building THIS “Boardwalk”. It’s all wrong.

  5. Glenn Gadbois says


    Portland Eastbank Esplanade is an equivalent project along their Willamette river adjacent to downtown Portland. Check out what this could look like when built. http://www.portlandonline.com/parks/finder/index.cfm?PropertyID=105&action=ViewPark

    Even though their was initial objection to the Esplanade, It is now a huge success based on use, tourism attraction, and environmental befits (erosion and habitat).

    The price tag may look high as a proportion of the bond package; but it is inline with the $20+ million Portland spent and is the cheapest option I’ve seen for a serious connection between east and west (IH35) Austin for people.

    Everyone should agree we need to do the project well (including shade and other design details that will make this attractive for people), but this can be an iconic project for Austin that completes the Lady Bird Lake trail and provides long needed connectivity across IH35.

    As to ROI – we can ask city staff for estimates of economic benefits (ROI) for efficiency, mobility, environmental stewardship, economic development, sustainable development. etc.

    • Thanks, Glenn. This appears to be fundamentally different (judging by the photos), in-so-far as this pathway is actually carved into the land in an attractive way, rather than on concrete/steel pylons in the water.

  6. Howdy all. Thanks for the conversation. Just popping in to clarify a couple things.

    First, my “disclosure” about being a South Shore resident is right in the Author block at the end of every article. Truly ironically, I am not a member of the NIMBY society. I, together with numerous others, have been trying (in vain) for two years to actually get the City to provide some resources to take a seriously hard look at how to extend the trail ONTO land — including the property where I live! LOL I want the trail. I love the trail. I use the trail. I just don’t want the concrete road in the water “solution” because it really trashes that beautiful river, which I also love, and is way overkill on both design and expense.

    Further, I have walked and kayaked every inch of the land area to be by-passed numerous times now. I’m telling you that this particular extension of the LBL Trail CAN be entirely placed on or adjacent to the land if starting with the min-specs of the existing trail. That’s just never been the project mandate from Council since its very inception. There is only one, relatively short,tricky section of cliffside just west of IH-35. But even there, modern trail-building technology would enable the trail (a true boardwalk) to be attached to the cliff side at still far less cost than the same section of the over-water approach. Have you ever seen what’s been done in major parks like the Grand Canyon? Keeping the trail on the land would also enable inter-connectivity from the Norwood Park up on top of that bluff, which is already city-owned parkland.

  7. A “simple walking path along the shore” is not possible for the section between roughly Joe’s and I-35 because of the steep slope of the bluff over the lake. It would require deforesting and dynamiting into the solid rock, which would be costly, unsightly, and a poor environmental choice.

    I’d like to thank Roger for doing some research on the conflict of interest of the author. The sad truth of environmentalism in this part of the country is that much is driven by single-issue “environmentalists” who can better be described as embracing the ideology for a single purpose – making sure whatever project might be proposed is Not In My Back Yard.

  8. Why should it just be a “simple walking path along the shore”? Just because that’s what Ladybird originally envisioned over 40 years ago? Back then, having anything along the river may have been considered rather revolutionary. If we’re going to burden ourselves with maintaining that mentality, then why should Ford Motor Company ever produce anything more sophisticated than the Model ‘T’?

  9. “Simple walking path along the shore” this is not.

    If it fails then it becomes concrete blight… on the lake. No shade, no engagement with any green vegetation. Clearly, what makes this [un] desirable is subjective, but it doesn’t feel organic enough.

  10. I think this is great, and I think the reasons against are not particularly valid. Sure there are no boards, but what would you call it “Town Lake Hike and Bike Obstinate Landowner Pedestrian Bypass””? Two really good reasons why this is good for Austin (past the obvious of having an actual loop around the lake).

    1) Money is ridiculously cheap right now. As a city we will pay much less for this boardwalk if we issue bonds now rather than in the future. The potential for money to get much cheaper is very low, the potential for money to get more expensive is very high.
    2) There is definite economic potential for the city. East Riverside has probably the largest collection of undeveloped or underdeveloped lots within 10 miles of downtown. Getting people comfortable with the area through completing the trail can lead to more development which leads to more income for the city.

    Not to mention that I hate running on riverside because of a few obstinate land owners.

  11. The rendering does make the “boardwalk” appear to seriously compromise the natural beauty of the lake. Constructing it from wood wouldn’t make much difference.

    Is it worthwhile or valid to compare this project to the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge? The Pfluger Bridge seems to share many of the same attributes (concrete and steel), but I nonetheless consider it a great asset to the community.

    A quick Google search seems to show that Fred Schmidt, the author of this article, owns property along East Riverside, very close to where this “boardwalk” would likely go. If true, this fact does not itself detract from Fred’s points. I’ve met Fred at public meetings, and I don’t question his sincerity, but I do think he should disclose his possible financial interest in the “boardwalk” if he has one.

  12. Jon Swift says

    This looks cool. and I think the design probably exists as seen so the cost is kept low. I am not sure how you could ever use wood boards building in a river. They use concrete and steel for the Pluger Bridge, right? and speaking of that, I am not sure building a bridge that people can walk on when there is no other public access is such a horrible idea as this guy seems to think. and one more thing, I am pretty damn sure there is a lot of this section that will be built on land, the simple path that the author is mooning over. public waterfront access for the public? who is against that? lakefront condo owners I bet……

  13. I do agree that shade should be incorporated into the plan. I also agree that the actual planks of the boardwalk should be more interesting. The last picture looks like scaffolding for the river, like its under construction. I think they should find a way to blend in the design more with the natural surroundings. I do like the concept though.

  14. Actually, it looks pretty cool. Only issues I have are price (obviously) and lack of shade. That’s what makes the trail awesome – it’s by the water and has tons of shade. If they kept it as close to the shore as possible it would be better.

Add New Comment or Leave Reply