Jan 2013 Traffic Update

Traffic has become a major concern in recent years for our neighborhood and on the West side of Austin in general. The RM 620 and Loop 360 corridors have seen increased congestion as growth west of Austin has continued. Due to the topographical constraints imposed on our area by nature, we have limited roadway arteries that connect us to the rest of the region. The closest ones being RM 620, FM 2222, but we are also significantly impacted by traffic flow on Loop 360, Hwy 71 and others. We believe that keeping these primary arteries functioning as optimally as possible is of significant importance for our quality of life and the future vitality of our area. Additionally, the Steiner Ranch area itself is continuing growth as the area fills out with additional residences (see ‘Development Issues’ for concerns related to the traffic implications of pending and proposed development) posing acute traffic concerns in our immediate area.

SRNA is actively engaged with TXDOT, City of Austin Traffic, Travis County TNR and governmental leaders to work on traffic issues. Please read further to learn about SRNA’s priorities for traffic issues and to learn about what SRNA is doing to address traffic concerns. Have ideas? we want to hear from you!

SRNA Priorities for Transportation/Traffic Improvements:

RM 620 / FM 2222 Signaling

*** Update Jan 25, 2013: after dialogue with City of Austin: the City signal engineer was very aware of the problems faced around the 620/2222 intersection and traffic backups and agreed that the situation warrants further action. They agreed to start with trying to prevent backups from the Riverplace Blvd. / 2222 intersection from reaching back to 620 – adjustments will be made incrementally over time (e.g. per week). Subsequent adjustments at 620 / 2222 will then be looked at as a follow on for adjustment – ideally once traffic can flow better EB on 2222.
* The initial adjustments will include more green time for 2222 trading off against the SB traffic on River Place Blvd. – this will not reduce the per signal green time for traffic exiting River Place going NB.
* We also learned that the City has been running a pilot program utilizing blue-tooth technology to measure travel times – they harvest MAC addresses from cell phones, etc as they drive by. This is currently deployed on Lamar and 360 and the communications infrastructure will be in place in the coming months at 2222 / 620 to support this in the future. The actual system is expected to be deployed along 620 and 2222 in one to two years. The system could be used to automatically provide feedback and allow for adjustments to traffic timings.also
* The signal engineer noted that traffic backing up to turn from WB 2222 left onto River Place Blvd should consider utilizing Satilo del Rio for a less congested left.

*** January 2013:
We have requested the City of Austin to review signal timings for RM620/FM2222 and FM2222/River-Place-Blvd intersections. We look forward to continuing our dialogue with them to help optimize the traffic flow. Updates will be provided as the dialogue continues. While a complete fix will require long term planning – we do anticipate that some improvements can be made in the near term – even incremental improvements can be significant. In a January 2013 meeting, TXDOT engineers agreed that improvements were worth investigating. In the short term this could include signal re-balancing to reduce the largest wait-times and in the longer term this could include more elaborate dynamically controlled signaling, e.g. using cameras and human operators at the Austin Traffic center as has been done for some other problematic intersections. The next step in this process is to continue engagement with the City of Austin traffic engineers.

Background Detail….

In 2012 and especially during school time we have seen a significant increase in traffic delays EB along RM 620 in the AM in comparison with the previous year. Delays along the 2 mile stretch of RM 620 from Quinlan Park Rd to 2222 are about 20 minutes during morning rush hour (traffic backs up to over the Dam) – add another up to 10 minutes to clear River Place Blvd for traffic heading toward the city on 2222 – that’s 30 minutes just to get from the entrance to Steiner out past River Place. And for our friends coming from Lakeway and areas further west add another 15 or more minutes. As we are all aware, growth continues in the corridor and this problem will only get worse. The delays are taking a significant toll on Steiner Ranch and areas west along RM 620.

It is likely a combination of signaling changes along with increased traffic traveling along 620 and 2222 to Vandegrift High School have exacerbated the delays in the last year. The significant year to year delay is s step function, so does not seem to be solely an issue of growth along the corridor nor High School attendance rates.

We believe that at least part of a short to mid-term solution to easy the delays could be accomplished with the help of some additional signal engineering – this work need not wait for the added turning capacity and we have requested that some work be done to try and attack the problem. Everyone in the area is also excited about the added capacity for turn lanes from RM 620 to FM 2222 planned for by TxDOT in the coming quarter ( see “TXDOT PLAN”); however, it seems clear that the added turning queue capacity alone will still leave us with a very significant problem since traffic is not currently able to flow EB on to FM 2222 due to backups there.

While there are limits to the capacity of the intersections in question, current signal timings are producing such excessive delays for a particular direction of traffic flow so we have suggested that additional steps be taken to optimize for this flow – giving more of a balance to the delays faced at the intersection in favor of higher net traffic throughput which would result in reduced delays along the busiest routes.

For the 620/2222 intersection this means more green time for the NB traffic along RM 620. The signaling can be adjusted to bound the net wait at the intersection and more evenly distribute it between each direction of traffic. This alone may make a significant difference – especially when combined with planned improvements to add additional turning capacity onto FM 2222.

Another significant aspect of the backup at the 620/2222 intersection appears to be the backup EB along FM 2222. This not only adds delay for commuters along this route, more significantly, it is also a primary contributor to the backup along FM 620 since traffic cannot flow steadily right from RM 620 to 2222 optimally during rush hour. We continue to discuss this issue with the City and we have requested that steps be taken to address this since this concern will remain after the planned right turn queuing capacity improvements on RM 620. “Cut-through” traffic flow along Four Points and heading SB to River Place Blvd is a significant contributor to the red light time along 2222. This “cut-through” traffic is waiting only one or two lights while traffic along 2222 takes almost 10 minutes net to clear the intersection. We have requested that the signal engineers evaluate options to reduce green time significantly to traffic flowing SB on River Place Blvd – this will not hurt legitimate traffic flow – since there is basically no legitimate flow along this path – this might be accomplished by skipping the SB traffic green completely for one or more traffic cycles. While the same traffic will still flow now through the 620/2222 intersection, the net number of signal cycles along the critical path can be reduced which should result in increased net traffic flow. The 2222 signals should be designed to prevent traffic from backing up all the way to RM 620 back from River Place Blvd. This may also require additional balancing of wait times at the River Place light to balance the waiting times and avoid backing up EB along 2222 all the way to RM 620. This is critical because the congestion impacts both 2222 and 620 traffic.

TXDOT Planned and Possible Improvements

TXDOT announced early in 2012 that they had secured funding for improvements to the RM 620 / FM 2222 intersection. While these plans are still not finalized, SRNA is engaging with TXDOT representatives to try and optimize the changes and also to identify next immediate steps after these changes are in place.

The planned changes were originally scheduled for Fall 2013, but have been postponed into 2013 due to challenges related to commercial access. We are meeting again with TXDOT representatives the week of January 20, 2012 and will post updated as they are available.

The planned improvements include:

  • Dedicated double right hand turn lane heading NB on RM 620 onto FM 2222 adjacent to the Walgreens and Wells Fargo. The new lanes will also be double the current depth resulting in a total of four times the dedicated queuing depth for traffic turning right.
  • An additional lane (now three total) for traffic heading EB on Bullick Hollow to allow right turning traffic to not be backed up with traffic heading straight onto FM 2222.
  • Re-striping of lane markers as needed at the intersection.

We can anticipate the adding queuing for right turns from RM 620 should help with traffic backups, but significantly during rush-hour we also need to consider signaling or the queuing alone may not be effective (see Signaling above).

We have suggested the evaluation of an additional right hand turn lane that extends much further back; e.g. perhaps to Steiner Ranch Blvd.. This is because we anticipate that the depth of the extended queuing access lane may not be long enough. The proposed lanes will extend to past Wells Fargo, but currently, drivers are already backed up well beyond that point. Vehicles are frequently ticketed currently as they head on the shoulder to get access to the right turn lanes. We have suggested the evaluation of an additional right hand turn lane that extends much further back; e.g. perhaps to Steiner Ranch Blvd. Extending all the way to Steiner Ranch Blvd. would have the additional benefit of providing a protected right turn for Steiner Ranch traffic. This might be accomplished with re-striping of the shoulders (reduced width) and lanes for that segment of the road including removal of the center turn lane between Steiner Ranch Blvd and BBQ outfitters. Note that TXDOT cannot completely consume the right hand shoulder as an additional lane since it is required to maintain access for bicycle riders. TXDOT will evaluate this option as per our Jan. 2013 meeting.

We have suggested the the approach coming WB on 2222 toward RM 620 be evaluated for re-striping as part of the planned improvements. The main concern is afternoon backup along 2222 for vehicles turning left onto RM 620. We suggest that the queuing capacity could be increased and extended further back to allow for more vehicles to enter the double lane queue and thereby compressing traffic and reducing the backup. Specifically, the queue might be stretched back to approximately the Wells Fargo along FM 2222. TXDOT will evaluate this option as per our Jan. 2013 meeting.

Improve Steiner Ranch Access

We have at least two options for improved traffic flow from Steiner Ranch onto RM620 to address concerns of safety and utility.

One option, mentioned in the previous section is to extend a right hand “auxiliary lane” from Steiner Ranch Blvd. to FM-2222.

A second option SRNA has been exploring is the possibility of adding an additional signaled traffic access point at or near Steiner Ranch Blvd. along RM 620. The specific proposal being currently investigated would involve the realignment of Steiner Ranch Boulevard with the signalized intersection at RM 620 and Comanche Trail. We have been in communication with Travis County TNR, TXDOT and Taylor Morrison about this possibility. Travis county TNR has responded that their Capital Improvement Program staff will undertake preliminary analyses of the project during 2013 – this will be a prerequisite for construction in case funding is secured. Presently, Taylor Morrison has indicated a willingness to contribute to the project. Funding from the county would need to be secured as part of the next transportation bond package.

We believe that the realignment would address significant and growing concerns with both the safety and utility of the existing intersection at Steiner Ranch Boulevard and RM 620.

Regarding safety, the existing intersection at Steiner Ranch Boulevard and RM 620 poses very significant safety concerns for vehicles turning left in both directions due to the line of sight concerns that exist over the crest of the hill on RM 620. Safety issues are exacerbated in the current configuration given that there is no signaling at the intersection despite having such a significant combination of high speeds and limited visibility. In a discussion held at the office of the TxDOT District Engineer, then Carlos Lopez, with county and city representatives present on June 18th, we discussed the safety issues with the current intersection as well as those with various potential reconfigurations. At the meeting, it was tentatively concluded that the proposed realignment option presented the safest potential option available at first look. We agree that further investigation and analysis is warranted to fully consider the line of sight and safety issues in comparison with the current configuration.

Residential development is continuing along Steiner Ranch Boulevard, including an additional 300 unit apartment complex and two additional housing projects east of Quinlan Park Road in the near future. These will add to the approximately 5000 households within the Steiner Ranch peninsula for which today there is only a single controlled intersection providing access to the area. The additional residential load being added directly along Steiner Ranch Boulevard will add further stress to the current intersection; this additional load will not only exacerbate the existing safety concerns, but will also stress the utility of the intersection as more drivers seek to utilize this un-controlled intersection for access to the neighborhood.

We do not expect this re-alignment to help directly for events such as an evacuation due to fire. However, general emergency response times to areas within the Steiner Ranch “peninsula” and along Steiner Ranch Boulevard may be improved with the proposed realignment due in part to the location of an emergency response station just north of RM 620 off of Comanche Trail.

A significant concern for the county is the need to mitigate for any loss of BCCP bird habitat that would occur with the re-alignment. Taylor Morrison has discussed providing land for an “in-kind” off-setting trade for suitable land in an adjacent or near by area to address this concern. Additionally, the developers of Steiner Ranch have expressed that they may be able to contribute to the construction of the re-alignment.

Put Big Fixes on the Table

In the longer term, the need for substantial improvements along the RM 620 corridor need to be considered. A TXDOT corridor study will finish up in February 2013 – this will kick off an effort to examine options for future improvement along RM 620. TXDOT will pursue “log hanging fruit” options, and at a meeting in June 2012 and again in January 2013, TXDOT agreed to also consider bigger-fixes to address problematic intersections. SRNA has specifically suggested the possibility of adding overpasses at both 620/2222 and 620/Anderson Mill and/or adding capacity to FM 2222. If specific improvements such as additional capacity and/or overpasses can be identified as viable solutions, then we can get plans on the table. This would open up the possibility of accelerating long term improvements if limited funds become available. TXDOT has also suggested that medium sized fixes may be explored – one possibility could be adding a right hand lane on EB 2222 to provide a protected right hand turn from RM 620 – this lane could possible continue past the currently congested area leading up to River Place Blvd with some right of way acquisition.

*** Update April, 2013 – we have received confirmation from TXDOT, that they will be “seeking planning dollars to develop
drawings, schematics and estimates on each of the areas that we have discussed. Possibly even purchase ROW and develop plans
in hopes of future funding availability.” We will meet with TXDOT in the coming weeks and months discuss the range of options.

Additional concerns for the long term include improvements for Loop 360 FM and 2222 access toward downtown. TXDOT is pursuing “innovative intersection” options which are basically non-traditional intersections designed to eliminate some of the bottlenecks of a classic design. One option of “Michigan U-turns” was rejected by neighbors adjacent to Loop 360, but TXDOT is proceeding with other proposed options which will serve as a testbed for future deployments. One such improvement is planned for the “Y” at Oak Hill where a “continuous flow intersection” is being planned – you can see a video of this design here.

Additionally, a general approach in the longer term may be for investment in additional sensory data such as camera based automatic traffic adjustment to manage rush hour traffic, and unexpected backups optimally as traffic flow volumes change without the need for manual adjustment.