Jester Estates neighbors worried ‘speed cushions’ will slow wildfire evacuation

Speed cushions in Jester Estates (KXAN Photo)
Speed cushions in Jester Estates (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Some people in Jester Estates fear they’re more at risk during a wildfire after speed bumps were installed two weeks ago. The neighborhood backs up to the Balcones Canyonland Preserve and has just one way in and one way out, prompting concerns about an evacuation.

“It scares me. Absolutely,” Doug Norton, who has lived in Jester Estates for 22 years told KXAN. If you ask him, no wildfire evacuation route should include anything that slows people down.

The Austin Transportation Department (ATD) says the cutout in the newly installed speed cushions are specifically designed for emergency vehicles to straddle. The goal, of course, is to not impact response times.

But Norton says the issue isn’t getting in, it’s the ability to quickly get out. ATD told KXAN its tested the speed devices at up to 40 miles per hour, acknowledging, “If someone feels they need to race out of the area, they will be able to do so. It probably won’t be the most comfortable ride across the cushions, but it’s possible to do so without vehicle damage.”

To be fair, the speed cushions didn’t just appear. This particular installation was a part of ATD’s request-based Local Area Traffic Management program. Any request for a device to slow drivers down requires the support of at least 60 percent of neighbors on both sides of the street. The city says it gets “tons” of requests but can only fund those deemed to be the most warranted.

Jeffrey Shapiro, chair of the Jester Estates Firewise Committee, says he doesn’t think speed cushions will make a big difference if 900 homes are being evacuated, claiming it’ll just be “chaos.” For him, the biggest thing is protecting the home to begin with, which is why he says he’s pushing Austin Resource Recovery to schedule more special pickups. The idea being, to encourage people to clear brush, tree trimmings, anything combustible within 30 feet of their home.

“We did our part of keeping our 30 feet clearance, you know, brush and all that down but that only gets you so much. If it’s a bad fire it’s gonna happen fast,” Norton said. “It’s probably a matter of when, not if.”

It’s a “when” that those living in Jester Estates want to know they’ve done all they can to prepare for.

The Austin Fire Department tells us it’s working with Public Works and ATD engineers to ensure any traffic calming devices do not slow down response time or get in the way of emergency response.

Near Lake Travis, there’s only one way in and out for people in the back of the Steiner Ranch neighborhood as well. Six years ago, people were forced to evacuate because of wildfires but many found themselves in a traffic jam, stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic for hours. Earlier this year, Travis County commissioners voted to spend nearly $3 million for an emergency evacuation route.

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