Just a few weeks ago, I told you about the traffic light situation on Texas 71 between Austin and Bastrop, how the Texas Department of Transportation was planning to spend $135 million to eliminate the five remaining signals on a key highway to Interstate 10 and Houston by building overpasses.
With those lights gone within a few years, I wrote, people would be able to travel between the state capital and Texas’ largest city without the chance of hitting a red light. Unless, I noted (jauntily, but with some trepidation), TxDOT were to add another traffic light in the meantime.
So I was startled to hear from reader Joe Gambino, who told me crews were at work adding a stoplight at Wolf Lane just west of the Travis-Bastrop county line. Uh-oh.
Mr. Gambino, I can report to you that what is going on at Wolf on Texas 71 is instead a flashing yellow beacon. Motorists on Wolf Lane (and Buck Lane north of Texas 71) will face a flashing red light.
TxDOT engineer Victor Vargas said the beacon is simply waiting for a power connection and should be in operation within 45 days. Wolf, through a jagged set of turns, leads to Circuit of the Americas and so periodically could have an appreciable number of people using it.
So no stoplight. But I wondered about having a light that would constantly be flashing yellow on a road where people are going 70 mph. Vargas said it will merely signal to drivers, going at high speed in that rural section of Texas 71, to be alert, not that they would automatically slow down.
Vargas said it is not necessarily a precursor to installation of a stoplight. Or a $30 million overpass sometime in the future. Good to know.
While I have you …
Circling back to 51st: TxDOT has spent most of two years eliminating what had been a very troublesome traffic light on East 51st Street just west of Interstate 35, building a two-lane roundabout along with a frontage lane bypass below the East 51st overpass.
The traffic circle opened on a rough basis back in February, with just one lane and little of the ornamentation in place. Since then, for drivers, it’s been sort of like residing in a home under renovation: functional but less than ideal.
Well, based on a tip from someone I live with, I made a trip out there Friday during morning rush hour. Perhaps this is something only an engineer or a transportation writer would say, but it looks pretty cool. Most of the plantings were in place, and the second lane on the roundabout had been in service since Thursday, TxDOT spokeswoman Diann Hodges told me.
As for the long waits East Siders will remember from when the traffic light was there, east-west traffic on East 51st was flying through unimpeded, and people coming from I-35’s southbound frontage lane faced only a one- or two-car queue. And anyone on the southbound frontage road looking to skip past East 51st has zero wait now, of course, because of that bypass lane.
Work should be 100 percent done in about a week, and TxDOT plans a ceremonial ribbon cutting June 27.
MoPac impact: Abandon all hope ye who enter at Winsted Lane.
People who regularly use Enfield Road and Winsted to get to southbound MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) will be familiar with the debacle that unfolded in October just before the toll lane on that side of the highway opened to traffic. The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, which built the MoPac project, closed what had been an acceleration lane from the Winsted on-ramp because the new toll lane was going to need that asphalt real estate instead.
The instant effect was a backup during evening rush hour that stretched a half-mile to Enfield. On Oct. 31, after the toll lane opened, getting through that section of Winsted and MoPac took a gobsmacking 105 minutes, according to mobility authority officials. Caught in that miasma with all the other frustrated commuters, then and later, were the toll agency’s executive director, Mike Heiligenstein, and board member David Armbrust.
People taking the 11-mile toll lane, of course, saved a bunch of time. But those in MoPac’s regular southbound free lanes saw only a minimal improvement in their travel time, with backups in the heart of rush hour stretching back at least to 45th Street.
The mobility authority staff immediately began to look for fixes, eventually coming up with nine scenarios. Deputy Executive Director Jeff Dailey reported back to the authority board in late April. You’re not going to like the answer much more than Armbrust did.
“Our recommendation is to do nothing right now,” Dailey said, noting that the best of the possibilities would save five to 10 minutes on the trip — “maybe,” he added — and cost up to $5 million.
That trip from Enfield to southbound MoPac, Dailey said, after that initial “Halloween surprise” has settled into the 27- to 34-minute range, only a bit worse on average than the 28 minutes measured before the change. But at least one reason for that is that people are taking other routes, including bypassing the Winsted entrance ramp to go farther south of Lake Austin Boulevard and use that already crowded entrance to MoPac.
It’s all a big mess most weekday afternoons.
The real problem, of course, is that the bridge over Lady Bird Lake is no longer spacious enough to handle the load, especially given that Waze and people’s perceptions have driven a lot of people back to MoPac since the toll lanes opened. A project to expand the bridge — and an 8-mile stretch of South MoPac — has been indefinitely delayed.
Armbrust and board chairman Ray Wilkerson weren’t satisfied with the no-hope answer and instructed Dailey to keep looking. I checked last week: No magic solution had emerged.
B-Cycle blues? I checked in with Elliott McFadden, the executive director of B-Cycle, to see what effect all the new competition (free-range scooters and bikes) might be having on his 4-year-old, city-owned system of dock-based rental bikes. The answer: too early to say.
B-Cycle rentals have actually skyrocketed since February, but that’s mostly because of a new, no-charge pilot program at the University of Texas. B-Cycle has added five docking stations on campus and four more in West Campus, and 11,000 students have signed up for a program that allows them to “rent” the bikes for free.
UT doesn’t pay anything to B-Cycle either, at least for now.
Take away those bike trips, however, and the B-Cycle picture has been mixed in the two months since the scooters and then bikes barged into town. B-Cycle’s non-UT rentals ticked up in April, compared with April 2017, then dropped slightly in May.
“It’s early days yet,” McFadden told me. “It’s hard to know if we’re even chasing the same customers.”