Monday, September 17, 2007

"Until last week, you could pass by Texas 130 without stopping. Now there's a light."

Commuters are fried over new stoplights on Texas 71

Signals installed after tollway opened causing new backups east of the airport.

September 17, 2007

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

Sometimes, as the old saw has it, you have to break some eggs to make an omelet.

Of course, this sort of transaction works out best for the one holding the knife and fork. From the egg's point of view, it's pretty much a lose-lose.

The "eggs" in this case are people commuting into Austin on Texas 71 from eastern Travis County and Bastrop County. The omelet is Texas 130, the new tollway that has been opening piece by piece over the past few months as construction moves southward. The Texas Department of Transportation completed the section from U.S. 290 to Texas 71 on Sept. 6.

That's also when new traffic lights on Texas 71 at Texas 130 were turned on. Before then, there was no light on Texas 71 between Ross Road east of Onion Creek and FM 973 near the airport, a stretch of about a mile and a half.

The new luminous obstruction, according to some of the e-mails and calls I've been getting, initially added at least 15 minutes to some people's morning commute. One Bastrop resident says her commute ballooned from 30 minutes to 80 minutes or more. One person wrote, perhaps engaging in hyperbole, that the backup extended as far as 10 miles.

The stoplights weren't causing a backup in the evening rush.

Late last week, after some scrambling by the Transportation Department to reroute some quarry trucks and to restripe part of Texas 71, the backup caused by the new lights had moderated. People were losing just a few minutes.

Two questions arise: What's causing the problem? And why the heck do there need to be stoplights there anyway? Wait, there's a third question: What the blankety-blank is the Transportation Department going to do about it in the long run?

The Transportation Department's Austin district blames "starvation," a traffic phenomenon the agency says is happening in this case because of the light farther west at FM 973. The City of Austin controls the timing on that light. Sometimes people get a green going west at Texas 130 and simply have to sit there, because traffic is stacked all the way from FM 973 to Texas 130.

I was out there Thursday morning, and — sure enough, a little after 8 a.m. — that is exactly what happened. At that point, westbound traffic on Texas 71 backed up within minutes to Ross Road, and it took people several minutes to reach Texas 130. Then they had to crawl to FM 973.

But Bastrop commuters tell me that before the Texas 130 light came on, the FM 973 backup at its worst extended nowhere near Ross Road. The new situation has some of them bailing out early and taking back routes to avoid the situation on 71.

The lights at Texas 130 are variable in their timing and switch based on the presence of traffic. Given that traffic is substantially heavier on Texas 71 than on the tollway — Texas 71 had 30,000 cars a day in this stretch two years ago, while the tollway in this interval has yawning gaps between cars — you might think that Texas 71 drivers would be getting the bulk of the green time. Not so.

Thursday morning, the typical interval was about a minute of green for 71, then 40 seconds to 50 seconds of green for Texas 130.

The tollway was getting roughly equal time.

As for why there has to be a light, well, picture yourself on the tollway at 7:30 a.m.

You've just paid about $4 to drive down from Georgetown — right now the road is free south of U.S. 290, but that won't be the case by January — and you want to turn left at Texas 71 and go to Houston. You get to Texas 71, and (in this alternate universe) there's only a stop sign there. To your left is a solid line of commuters headed into Austin. You're stuck, probably for a very long time. Maybe next trip, you take another route and don't pay that $4.

You get the picture.

What is the Transportation Department going to do? Well, in the short run, workers on Wednesday night restriped Texas 71 between FM 973 and the tollway to have three lanes in each direction. That extra capacity seemed to mitigate the "starvation" to some degree. And the agency is working on the signal timing of its lights and the city's light at FM 973.

But in the long run, everyone involved knows, there need to be express lanes for Texas 71 as it passes under the tollway. Right now, there are only the frontage roads with a big space in between. So, is the state about to build those express lanes?

No. There was no money allocated in the $3.6 billion Central Texas Turnpike Project's budget to do that or to build a similar seamless connection where Texas 130 crosses U.S. 290 about 11 miles to the north. Commuters up there from Manor and Elgin have to stop at lights as well.

What is likely to happen, based on what local transportation officials have been saying, is that Texas 71 and U.S. 290 will be turned into freeways all the way from U.S. 183 back in Austin to just beyond Texas 130. Wait, did I say freeways? Actually, the current thinking is that they will become tollways for those stretches, with free frontage roads alongside.

That would be those same frontage roads people are driving on now. The ones with the traffic lights.

So, until last week, you could pass by Texas 130 without stopping. Now there's a light. In a few years, there will probably be a way to breeze through on Texas 71 without having to stop at those lights. If you pay.

Local transportation officials have said repeatedly since the whole toll road rhubarb sprouted here in 2003 that people would always have the same free access they had before any toll road came along. To fulfill that promise, they've already had to make expensive midcourse corrections on the Loop 1 and Texas 45 North tollways.

One of those cases was similar to this Texas 71 situation, the spot where the Texas 45 North tollway crosses under Parmer Lane.

The state scrambled, redid plans and spent more than $20 million building a special free lane on each side under Parmer so that drivers, who didn't have to stop at Parmer when all that was there was plain old RM 620, could bypass the Parmer traffic light. Of course, they had two lanes each way before and one lane now, but one lane is better than nothing.

These tollway extensions on Texas 71 and U.S. 290 won't happen for at least a couple of years, probably more in the case of Texas 71.

The folks on Texas 71 may have to stew a good while longer. Or maybe that should be "fry." As in, fried eggs.

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