Two-lane stretch of South Congress Avenue to be widened to five lanes

A longtime South Austin traffic bottleneck, the 1.25-mile-long stretch of South Congress Avenue where it has just two lanes, should be eased within the next two years.

The Texas Department of Transportation will spend $6.3 million to widen the road to five lanes between Eberhart Lane, just north of William Cannon Drive, and Foremost Drive. Work should begin by early next year and take about 13 months to complete, TxDOT spokeswoman Kelli Reyna said.

Crews will keep one lane open in each direction most of the time, she said, but there could be more disruptive closures during off-peak traffic hours. Crews will also paint in 5-foot-wide bike lanes on each side.

That section of South Congress, one of only a handful of ways to get from Central Austin to far South Austin, has been something of a transportation orphan, with four-lane sections to its north and south. The narrowing of the road — to as little as 32 feet wide at one point — has been a particular problem during afternoon rush hours, causing southbound drivers to stew through several cycles of the stoplights at William Cannon Drive.

“Finally,” said Austin radio mainstay Bob Cole, a South Austin resident who is one of KOKE-FM’s owners now. Before that, he spent much of his life on South Congress while working for KVET-FM and running Hill’s Cafe. “It was the most direct link to my house for 14 years. … It befuddled me how such a short stretch could stay that way (two lanes) for so long. It is just such a totally unneeded delay.”

It is not clear why the four-lane profile for South Congress skipped over the Eberhart-to-Foremost section in the first place or why TxDOT waited until now to widen that stretch. Bill Garbade, TxDOT’s Austin district engineer from 1987 to 2003, a period that included major expansions of MoPac Boulevard, U.S. 183, U.S. 290 and the Ben White Boulevard/Interstate 35 interchange, said it didn’t rose to the top of the list in his time.

“It was just never a priority,” Garbade said.

In the years since, TxDOT and its partners have done billions of dollars of highway expansions in Central Texas, the bulk being for tollways. The money allocated to the South Congress project came from federal transportation funds that the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board, rather than the Texas Transportation Commission, decides how to spend.

Cole said he had plenty of time to contemplate such questions, spending five to seven minutes getting through the William Cannon light at least once every weekday during the KVET days. Cole, who has lost 130 pounds in the last couple of years, half-jokingly blames that two-lane stretch for some of his struggles in that regard.

He would inch along toward the light, looking at the Jack-in-the-Box restaurant alongside, and many times turn in.

“It forced me into a lot of unnecessary stops at Jack-in-the-Box,” he said. “I definitely put on weight because of it.”

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