Bypass update, raised median, speed limits
By SARAH DOOLITTLE, Four Points News
Steiner Ranch Neighborhood Association hosted a presentation about RM 620 traffic safety last week on the heels of a recent fatality in Four Points.
A month after 54-year-old Franklin Daniels died in a two-vehicle crash on RM 620 near Mansfield Dam on Feb. 22. Daniels was driving a Ford Ranger northbound on RM 620 when he lost control and slid into oncoming traffic and slammed into a Hyundai Sonota, the Texas Department of Public Safety reported. Daniels died at the scene and a man in his 60s, who was driving the Hyundai, was taken to the hospital with critical, life-threatening injuries, according to Austin-Travis County EMS.
Road safety was one of the topics discussed at the SRNA forum on March 20 at the Steiner Bella Mar Community Center. Other issues that were talked about to the audience of about 15 included overcrowded local roads, usage of the center lane, speed limits, impaired driving, driving while using a cell phone, and emergency access.
Those in attendance voiced their concerns and offered questions and suggestions, recommending a reduction in the speed limit, improvements to roads and asking who approves local development.
Representatives from local agencies were part of the meeting including: Bruce Byron, Texas Department of Transportation; Don Rios, Travis County Sheriff’s Office sergeant; Bobby Ramthun, TxDOT engineer; Robert Abbott, Lake Travis Fire Rescue fire chief; and Don Barber, chief staff aid to state Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin.
SRNA board chair Brian Thompto opened the meeting sharing about the high number of accidents along RM 620.
“(Data) shows the prevalence of accidents along RM 620, instead of being, like you might imagine, clustered at a few intersections, it’s just like this line of dots, all up and down 620… It’s a fundamental challenge.”
TxDOT engineer Ramthun spoke to efforts currently being made by TxDOT to improve road safety. The stretch of RM 620 near Mansfield Dam, where the Daniels fatality and another recent accident occurred, has been retextured to improve traction on the road, and lighted signs have been added in both directions encouraging drivers to slow down and drive safely.
As soon as there is consistent warmer weather, RM 620 between the dam and RM 2222 will be resurfaced with a new type of pavement that is more porous, allowing rain to drain into the road surface and out the sides, reducing spray and standing water on the road.
TxDOT is also working to place speed limit signs every two miles along the roadway and to upsize safety signs.
Byron emphasized that most accidents in the area can be prevented by drivers themselves.
“We analyse each and every one of (these crashes). Ninety-nine percent of it comes down to driver error,” noting road conditions like rain and factors such as pickup trucks that are “notoriously unstable in wet weather.”
“People just need to slow down. They need to stop getting on their phones. We can design the safest highway in the world. But if people drive too fast for conditions… weaving back and forth, on their phones, texting… all these activities are what cause the crashes. Enforcement can only do so much.”
Sheriff’s Office perspective
Travis County Sheriff’s Sergeant Don Rios has been with the sheriff’s office for 26 years and seconded Byron’s message.
“You can make some of the safest roads out there. It’s just when you start getting more people and more people and more people, you’re getting more drunks and more distracted drivers, more people speeding… There are so many factors involved.”
He explained that the community needs to have realistic expectations of the sheriff’s department based on the department’s existing resources.
While one of their goals is to have visibility on the roadways, the fact is that the department only has a total of 24 traffic enforcement officers: 12 on motorcycle patrol, eight highway enforcement officers in patrol cars, and four commercial vehicle inspection officers.
Additionally, officer work four 10-hour days a week covering a geographic area that stretches from Bastrop to Lago Vista to Pflugerville to Spicewood Springs. And, Rios added, “There are traffic issues everywhere we go,” not just in the Four Points area.
“Our primary goal is to reduce fatality collisions and serious bodily injury collisions,” said Rios. “Because every day there are serious bodily injury collisions all over Travis County. It’s just by the grace of God that they’re not all fatalities. But there are a lot of fatalities.”
The traffic unit is called out to every fatality, and they are called out more than every other unit in the sheriff’s department combined.
Having collected data from the past few years to identify collision hot spots in the county, Rios assures the Four Points community that, “620 is nowhere near in the top ten of those clusters of fatality collisions.”
Rios did add, though, that, “The more people that come into play, the more the population grows, those numbers will spike, guaranteed.”
Rios emphasized as well that, thanks to the Four Points area’s geographic isolation and proximity to the Sheriff’s department at Hudson Bend, 620 is more patrolled than any other ten mile stretch in the county.
Additionally, school zones are the department’s highest priority and officers are present whenever possible at elementary school crossings during school arrival and dismissal times.
Rios encouraged voters who feel there is a need for additional law enforcement to call their local representative and request more funding.
Future RM 620 raised median
TxDOT’s Byron explained that the five-lane road section of 620 (two lanes in each direction and one continuous left turn lane) in Four Points is well-suited for up to about 25,000 vehicles per day.
“The problem is when you get to the vehicle count we have out there now, which is about twice 25,000,” said Byron.
The center turn lane is in constant use by drivers for turning, passing and accelerating and predictably leads to accidents when two cars traveling in opposite directions want to use the lane at the same time.
“The project right now is to get the road divided and have turn bays so we can sort of structure the turn movements,” instead of a continuous turn lane that allows drivers to use it for any reason at any point.
He anticipates, though, that it would be about a four-year timeline before such a project could start, not only to secure funding but also to acquire right-of-way, to relocate utilities and to address environmental concerns.
“It takes a lot longer than what you would suspect,” said Byron.
Prior to widening RM 620 will be the 2222 bypass, already funded and expected to begin construction soon, which is anticipated to relieve traffic along RM 620 between Steiner Ranch and the 620/2222 intersection.
When asked who approves local development, Byron said, “there is only a minimal amount that cities can do to regulate growth.”
Unlike other states that require developers to provide for infrastructure, in Texas, “if you’re a landowner, it’s a matter of protecting your rights to develop your land. The problem that we get into is that we just don’t have the money to provide infrastructure as quickly as people move in,” Byron said.
As for reducing speed limits, Byron explained that speed limits are set according to a speed study performed on each road and calculated according to a formula used nationally.
“If you arbitrarily set it low, people just ignore it, and then you have more violations,” Byron said.
LTFR’s Abbott views road safety from the perspective of one who is a first responder to the scene of accidents. Traffic, to the fire department, means not just an increase in accidents but also decreased emergency access.
Abbott addressed the issue of emergency access roads, such as the one being requested by the community for additional access to Vandegrift High School.
“My concern as the chief is that when you make an emergency access road, it stays an emergency access road. What happens is political pressure over time — all of a sudden it opens up to public access,” Abbott said.
Besides additional roads, the department does have other tools at its disposal, such as the ability to control traffic lights (with a few exceptions) to expedite access to accident sites, as red lights can add 30 seconds to a minute per light to response times.
The fire department also does its best to clear accidents from the roadway as quickly as possible, knowing that, “It only takes one wreck to shut down 620,” said Abbott.
At the close the meeting, Don Barber, speaking on behalf of Workman, said that, “I’m here to really listen for feedback,” and emphasized that Workman advocates heavily for the community to increase funding for roads and other essential projects.
As the presentation wrapped up, SRNA’s Thompto encouraged everyone in the community to attend the April 9 CAMPO (Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization) Policy Board meeting, where roadways are discussed and planned, and to join the SRNA.
Speaking for everyone in attendance, Thompto emphasized what’s at stake.
“Our kids are on these roads, our neighbors are on these roads, strangers… all of us need to be safe,” he said.