TxDOT takes slow road to expanding section of RM 620


The CAMPO board next month probably will award $59 million to widen RM 620 in Lakeway and Bee Cave.

TxDOT declined to ask for money to help widen northern RM 620 from Mansfield Dam to U.S. 183.

Officials say more planning work remains on that northern part, but politics might have played a role as well.

RM 620 has plenty of critics. Apparently what the winding, congested highway in western Travis County needs, at least the part of it north of Mansfield Dam, is more friends in high places.

The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board has almost $450 million in state and federal money to allocate to Central Texas transportation. Next month, CAMPO is likely to bestow that money on more than 50 projects, including $59 million to widen five-lane RM 620 for a stretch from Texas 71 to north of Lakeway.

But the more congested and heavily traveled half of the 18.8-mile road, from the dam to U.S. 183, will get nothing for now.

RELATED: TxDOT’s hard look at RM 620

The Texas Department of Transportation declined to submit to CAMPO that northern segment, which sees almost 60,000 cars a day near Anderson Mill Road, as part of a call for potential grants out of that $440 million. Representatives of several neighborhoods that depend on RM 620 — Steiner Ranch, Canyon Creek, River Place — last week told the transportation board that the omission baffles them.

“Traffic is absolutely horrible on RM 620,” said Randy Lawson, who serves on the Canyon Creek neighborhood board. “People will get stuck on it and say, ‘Did it really take 45 minutes to go just 3 miles?’ 620 is our only way in and out” of the neighborhood.

Expanding the northern half of RM 620, according to Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, would be a more complex and expensive job than the six miles slated for the CAMPO grant, particularly north of RM 2222. But politics and leverage are also at work.

The cities of Bee Cave and Lakeway, traversed by the southern section, which will get the $59 million for what is expected to be a $98 million project, each promised to kick in $5 million for the work. RM 620 would be expanded to six lanes, with a raised center median and left turn bays. That leaves TxDOT having to provide only another $30 million or so.

Construction probably won’t begin until 2022.

“TxDOT has always worked most effectively with leveraged dollars, something I’ve been preaching to Lakeway and Bee Cave,” said Daugherty, whose Precinct 3 includes both that favored southern stretch of RM 620 and the part north of RM 2222. “That’s the reason that the south end has gotten more attention.”

The northern section, on the other hand, passes through a gantlet of jurisdictions. Steiner Ranch is still outside Austin’s city limits and in Travis County Precinct 2, represented by Commissioner Brigid Shea. Then the road falls within Austin City Council District 6, represented since January 2017 by Jimmy Flannigan, and also in Daugherty’s precinct. At the far north end, parts of Cedar Park front the road.

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“With the complication of the different players, it’s really hard to get everyone to the table at the same time,” Daugherty said.

But it’s not clear that anyone truly attempted to convene such a gathering.

“It’s been radio silence at my office on this,” Flannigan said last week. “I know I haven’t been asked to get the money (for TxDOT). And Commissioner Shea seems to have had the same experience.”

The southern section of RM 620 in 2015 had 35,000 to 44,000 vehicles a day, depending on the location counted, according to a 2017 TxDOT study of its entire length. TxDOT assigned failing grades to Lohmans Crossing Road, Debba Drive and Cavalier Drive during rush hour periods, but its intersections with traffic lights generally handle traffic better than the intersections north of the dam — and closer to the bulk of Austin.

Terry McCoy, TxDOT’s Austin district engineer and — like Daugherty, Shea and Flannigan — a member of the CAMPO board, pointed out that the northern segment is not being totally ignored. Using $7.5 million of Austin bond money and its own cash late this year, TxDOT will begin to add a northbound lane near Steiner Ranch Boulevard and a new road, cutting the corner between RM 620 and RM 2222. And RM 2222 for about 2 miles east of RM 620 will get various improvements as part of the $18 million bypass project.

The CAMPO board, in dispensing the grants, considered only projects that would take place in the next four years. As for that northern part of RM 620, McCoy said, “we’re just not there yet.”

The 2017 TxDOT study of RM 620 contemplated both a midterm phase expanding the northern section to six lanes (just as will happen in Lakeway and Bee Cave) and then a potential long-term addition of four expressway lanes. Those four lanes, the report said, could be tolled and might even be elevated to minimize the amount of right of way necessary.

McCoy said the six-lane project would cost at least $120 million. TxDOT has not assigned a cost to the additional expressway project.

RELATED: Project to ease stacked-up RM 620 to break ground this summer

Keeping that public-owned swath as narrow as possible is a big part of the challenge for the northern section, particularly between Anderson Mill and U.S. 183, an area that is heavily commercialized, with many of the businesses close to the road.

“That adds expense and additional time for project development,” McCoy said. “And impact on the community. As you incur those impacts, a lot of the time you incur opposition as well.”

Flannigan said he isn’t sure RM 620 needs two more lanes. The real bottleneck, the council member said, is the Anderson Mill traffic signals.

“If you could create more throughput (at Anderson), then the two lanes in each direction we have are probably sufficient,” he said.

CAMPO officials said that with TxDOT continuing to get healthy amounts of money from constitutional amendments passed in 2014 and 2015 — and CAMPO then being allowed to decide how some of that money is spent — another competition for transportation projects could occur as soon as 2019. That would present another chance for RM 620.

Between now and then, the city of Austin will hold yet another bond election (after transportation bond votes in 2014 and 2016). At this point, the $851 million recommendation from a bond task force includes $180 million for transportation, none of it for RM 620.

“I will make sure to put that northern section back on my radar,” Daugherty said. “And I hope Jimmy will work with me.”

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