Wear: Congested RM 620 getting fresh, hard look from TxDOT

12:00 a.m. Sunday, July 12, 2015 Local

For most Central Texans, RM 620 is out of sight and out of mind.

For people who live west and northwest of Austin, on the other hand, RM 620 drives them out of their minds.

The problem is that the road, pocked with almost three dozen traffic lights between Bee Cave at Texas 71 and the Lakeline Mall area at U.S. 183, is both a commuter highway for people and a main street for several towns or communities. And because of the Colorado River and the hilly terrain, it is basically the only way to and from Austin for tens of thousands of people.

Despite traffic of 32,000 to 42,000 cars a day on the five lanes of that stretch, RM 620 had mostly remained well down the Texas Department of Transportation’s priority list until not long ago. When I last wrote about it at length in 2012, TxDOT’s Austin district engineer at the time said that with limited money and needier roads closer to Austin’s core, RM 620 probably would not get real attention for many years.

That might be changing.

TxDOT is about half a year into a $650,000 study of what can be done to improve the road and what people who live along it and drive it think should be done. Bruce Byron, TxDOT’s Austin district public involvement officer, and other agency officials and consultants have been taking traffic counts and meeting with small groups of people up and down the corridor, asking them about their preferences for the road.

“The vast majority of people we’ve talked to, they just want something done,” Byron said. The worst spots: near the intersections with RM 2222 and Anderson Mill Road, and a variety of places in Lakeway.

The fruit of these efforts, due next March, will be a look at short-term fixes (adding turn lanes and the like) and long-term visions for RM 620. Such as?

Byron said no one is talking about converting the road into a full-fledged expressway for the whole 18.8 miles, with, for instance, four freeway lanes and four frontage road lanes. Not enough space. TxDOT by and large owns a 140-foot-wide swath of right of way throughout RM 620, and that isn’t enough room for that sort of highway. And with many businesses (and in some areas, homes) built near the edge of that line, buying more right of way would be ruinously expensive.

But engineers do think there might be enough room for something like a three-lane freeway (or maybe even a tollway) with a reversible center lane and frontage roads, or a six-lane road divided by a median, with left turn lanes cut into that median. The early thinking, Byron said, is that it might make sense to put that limited freeway in the northern section, from U.S. 183 to RM 2222, and then the six-lane profile through the rest of RM 620 to Bee Cave.

But that’s not necessarily how things will shake out in March, he said.

And then there’s money, always at the center of any highway question. The study will attach cost estimates to the ideas, Byron told me, and estimate what effect each option would have on traffic in the short run and over time. But the report won’t talk about availability of money, which even at $650,000 is above the study’s pay grade.

As you may have heard, TxDOT has estimated that fixing and expanding Interstate 35 through Central Texas will cost $4.3 billion. And there are projects afoot, or under study, on U.S. 183 in North and Northwest Austin, South MoPac Boulevard, U.S. 290 in Oak Hill and even Loop 360. All of those have greater traffic, usually far greater, than RM 620.

The money queue still exists, in other words, and RM 620, despite the long waits at those stoplights, doesn’t appear to have shouldered anyone out of the way.

But TxDOT, as the Statesman and others have reported, has come into some long green over the past year or so and has the prospect of much more in November when another constitutional amendment directing money to roads will be on the ballot.

Will some of that new money be left over once TxDOT works its way through the line and gets to RM 620? Impossible to say at this point.

But RM 620, seemingly out of mind for TxDOT just a few years ago, is in the conversation. It’s a start.