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Wear: Heading for the hills? West Lake has a vintage bottleneck

I’m not a traffic engineer. I just play one in the newspaper.

But West Lake Hills, since you didn’t ask, maybe you should consider putting in a traffic light at the intersection of Red Bud Trail and Westlake Drive. Because having 50 or more cars stacked up a half-mile back into Austin several times a week surely qualifies as a problem worth solving.

That formerly humble confluence of two-lane roads, tucked into a hollow about a mile west of Lady Bird Lake’s upper reaches, has been a four-way stop since … well, for a very long time. Jeff Dochen, whose stepdad Emmett Shelton founded West Lake Hills, moved out among the cedar choppers and the swells in 1963 when the wooded municipality was only a decade old. He remembers that for a while it was a three-way stop. People coming from Austin on Red Bud had the right of way, and everyone else had to pause.

Then at some point, westbound Red Bud got a stop sign, too, and drivers have been playing “after you, sir” ever since. That worked well for quite a while.

But in 1980, West Lake Hills had just 2,000 residents. Davenport Ranch, Lost Creek and Barton Creek Estates didn’t exist yet. The Village of Bee Cave was just that, a village, and Lakeway was a resort enclave rather than a metastasizing suburb.

Now, western Travis County census counts have exploded and commuters have only a handful of ways to get to and from Austin: Texas 71 (and all the fun of the Oak Hill Y that carries with it), Southwest Parkway (fine, until you get to MoPac Boulevard), Bee Cave Road (a gantlet of traffic lights), and the combo of Loop 360 and RM 2222 (always a good time).

And, finally, there’s the web of skinny, hilly roads that lead to this four-way stop, and thence to the Shelton Bridge and Lake Austin Boulevard beyond. For those in the know, the opportunity to sneak into and out of Central Austin is too enticing to pass up.

But as the West Lake Hills cut-through has become more popular, the four-way stop has become a nightmare most weekday afternoons, West Lake Hills Mayor Dave Claunch told me last week when I called to bug him about it.

I can personally confirm this.

I went out Tuesday about 4 p.m, parked at the convenience store near the four-way stop and found myself a handy spot to observe the traffic. I got a lot of strange looks, by the way. A pedestrian in West Lake Hills? Clearly I was up to no good.

Until precisely 5:05 p.m., I thought perhaps I was chasing a phantom. Cars would stack up seven to 10 deep westbound on Red Bud — and sometimes northbound on Westlake as well — then promptly clear over the next minute or so. Then, suddenly, tipping point time came and the tail end of the Red Bud line of cars disappeared around a corner and up the hill.

I ran eastbound up the road’s almost nonexistent shoulder, wishing I’d taken someone’s suggestion to get a neon-yellow safety vest. I stood a decent chance of becoming an ex-pedestrian. But I made it up to the crest of the hill near the city of Austin’s Ullrich Water Treatment Plant as the procession reached about 35 cars.

Just before 5:30 p.m., the line started building up even more, stretching east down to near where Stratford Drive hits Red Bud. About 65 cars at a stop sign, a half-mile back, each person stewing for up to 10 minutes before moving on. This lasted until close to 6 p.m.

Claunch said he’s seen the line go much farther back, across the Emmett Shelton Bridge over the river and up to Lake Austin Boulevard. Guess I caught a good day. All of this could get worse in about a year, when a two-year project to widen Bee Cave Road through West Lake Hills begins. One more reason to take the back-country route.

Now, I’ll pause right here to acknowledge that the victims of this situation, by and large, are otherwise doing pretty OK. West Lake Hills’ 873 families in the 2010 census had a median income of about $233,000 a year, and most of the suburbanites living at points beyond and cutting through West Lake Hills come from nice neighborhoods and no doubt drive cars with a working air conditioner. This discomfiting affliction of a traffic snarl is definitely afflicting the comfortable.

Nonetheless, it seems like a needless, gas- and time-wasting bottleneck. Claunch and Robert Wood, the West Lake Hills city administrator, said the question of installing a traffic light has come up before and never gained traction. The intersection, which amounts to West Lake Hills’ gateway, is somewhat iconic for longtime residents.

And installing a traffic light, city and Texas Department of Transportation officials told me, can cost $150,000 or more. That would amount to about 3 percent of the West Lake Hills annual budget.

How about a roundabout, I asked Claunch. No, not enough flat area at the intersection.

He did say that West Lake Hills has been talking to city of Austin transportation officials — the Austin city limit line is at Little Bee Creek, just a couple of hundred feet west of the stop signs — about slightly widening a culvert bridge over the creek. That way, people wanting to go straight on Red Bud or right on Westlake could pass on the right and shorten the line some. Maybe that’ll happen.

I looked at the Federal Highway Administration’s Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (not for long, though — it was right after lunch and dozing off was a real possibility). The manual lists nine “warrants” for installing a traffic light, most of which have to do with the intensity of traffic at various times. An intersection that sees more than 1,000 cars during the peak hour of commuting, for instance, might warrant a light.

Turns out that neither the city of Austin nor West Lake Hills has any traffic count data out that way. Based on my short experience, I bet something close to a thousand cars pass by during the 5 to 6 p.m. period.

But absent some official change of heart, it appears the daily Red Bud Shuffle will continue indefinitely. I’d suggest books on tape.

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