Fourth Avenue NE extension could help

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 11, 2000

All the conditions were right.

Tuesday, July 11, 2000

All the conditions were right.

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Nearly 4.5 inches of rainfall fell over Austin in a 48-hour period last weekend.

With the ground already saturated, there was no place for the water to go but over the Cedar River and Turtle and Dobbins creeks’ banks.

City streets were closed and even a portion of Interstate 90 within the city limits, which necessitated freeway traffic to be rerouted through the city, congesting traffic even more.

The 7,000 people living in the city’s Third Ward had few options for travel in or out of their neighborhoods.

A quarter of the city’s population was trapped by high waters that closed East Oakland Avenue/Place from the Third Street NE overpass bridge north to 11th Street NE and Jim’s SuperValu, Doors and Floods and Star Liquors.

Thank goodness Fourth Avenue NE had been extended from 10th Street NE north to 11th Street across the IM Link rail yards.

Thank goodness that old gondola-style grain car wasn’t parked in front of the street between the old Milwaukee Road depot building and Fox Electric.

Thank goodness police, fire, ambulance, utility and other public safety vehicles had another route to take.

Thank goodness … wait … that was a dream.

There’s no Fourth Avenue NE extension. Emergency and other traffic to and from the city’s Third Ward neighborhoods remains a nightmare when the main thoroughfare is blocked.

Granted, emergency services vehicles could have made their way to the northeast Austin neighborhoods, but like other vehicles, they would have had to snake through back streets not blocked by water and endured bumper-to-bumper traffic jams – particularly along Eighth Avenue NE or some other round-about way to get there.

"It looked to me that access to the east side of Austin looked a lot like the 1978 100 year floods had struck the city. There wasn’t any," said Tom Purcell, a resident of the area and a former Austin City Council member at large.

"If you live on the east side, you haven’t got a chance when something like this happens," Purcell said.

Purcell was an Austin City Council member, when the city battled the railroad company, IM Link, for access via a Fourth Avenue NE extension.

At the time, everyone championed the idea, because the extension would also open up property along the rail lines for economic development.

Earlier, the city removed a pedestrian overhead bridge that had out-lived its usefulness and become a liability to pedestrians and bicyclists who tried to use it.

When city officials announced, they wanted to extend Fourth Avenue NE, a collective sign of relief was heard from residents and city officials.

What happened? Answer: the railroad fought the extension and the Austin City Council was forced to take their case to an administrative law judge.

In the first legal battle, the city won and an administrative law judged ruled the city could acquire the land and extend the avenue.

The rail line appealed the ruling, but the city won a second time in a Minnesota state court.

"That came after the railroad said it needed all five rail crossings to assemble trains," Purcell said. "In effect, what they were saying was that economic convenience should take precedence over the public’s safety."

Purcell and then-Austin city attorney, Kermit Hoversten, fought the rail company. Using pictures borrowed from the Mower County Historical Society and Austin Daily Herald archives, they assembled a compelling visual account of how floods from the waters of three watersheds flowing into the city could isolate the northeast quarter of the community.

Because all emergency services agencies are located in the downtown area or west Austin, blocked streets due to flooding hampered or simply stopped their rescue efforts.

"The railroad even said it would be too dangerous to put up crossing signals when their trains move through town," Purcell said. "By law, they can only move four to five miles per hour through the city. So with proper crossing signals posted, that possibility was highly unlikely. Besides, they only have about three trains per week going through the town."

Purcell left the council to retire to semi-private life – he still speaks out frequently on public issues such as the Fourth Avenue NE extension.

On Monday, when the weekend’s rains caused flooding, which some say is as bad as the twin 100 years floods of 1978, Purcell and other northeastern Austinites were stymied. "One of the ideas was a temporary emergency crossing. Where is that idea now?" Purcell and the others wanted to know.

According to current city attorney David Hoversten (son of Kermit Hoversten), it’s still just an idea.

"The railroad sued the city in federal court and won," Hoversten said. "In return for no damage claims against the railroad, the railroad agreed an emergency crossing could be constructed, that would be available only to public safety agencies and not the public."

The so-called "country crossing" would have signage and signals and be more a rough access route across the five sets of tracks for emergency vehicles only than anything else.

"In other words," said Hoversten, "the ruling was that federal law preempted any state or local laws and, therefore, the early victories by the city before an administrative law judge and in the state court were superseded by the federal court’s ruling."

However, the emergency route was never constructed and today a large grain car remains parked on the track blocking what would be an emergency or other extension of Fourth Avenue NE.

Northeast Austin residents’ travel access options, when floods occur, are restricted.

Purcell remained adamant something must be done.

"If you have a heart attack and need an ambulance right away, you haven’t got a chance when the other streets are blocked," he said.

"If your house is on fire, and you’re waiting for the fire trucks to arrive, you haven’t got a chance," he said. "If something bad happens over there and the other streets are blocked by flooding, nobody has a chance."