Big changes for Loop 360?

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The public is already embracing solutions unveiled Nov. 4 by the Texas Department of Transportation to improve traffic flow on Loop 360 by adding intersection overpasses and underpasses and a pair of new lanes in the median.

“I think the variable grade [at intersections]is a good,” said Northwest Austin resident Doug Richards, who lives in the Courtyard neighborhood near the Pennybacker Bridge.

The proposals come two years after TxDOT embarked on a study to learn what causes Loop 360 congestion and solutions for relieving traffic.

“The public has come together over the last few years in seeing what the problems were,” TxDOT Project Manager Bruce Byron said. “The fact that you had 55 percent of people in the survey say you need to get rid of the traffic lights and do overpasses and underpasses—they had already reached the same conclusion that we did.”

But adding overpasses and underpasses at every major intersection along Loop 360 will not be enough in the long term, which is why TxDOT is also looking at adding new lanes, Byron said.

TxDOT has periodically completed short-term projects on Loop 360, such as extending left-turn lanes, but Byron said no long-term vision has ever existed. The study aimed to provide that vision by outlining projects that could occur in the next 20 years.

360-1Signal timing

One of the short-term projects calls for updating the traffic signals to be adjusted in real time. The city of Austin will fund and implement this project at signals between US 183 and Pascal Lane.

Many residents Byron said he spoke to believe fixing the traffic signal timing will fix the problem.

“No amount of traffic signalization is going to help the peak hour, but in off-peak and during less-use times that can really help expedite traffic,” Byron said.

Vicki Roberts, dealer principal of Lexus of Austin and a member of the Loop 360 stakeholder working group, said she, too, once thought signal timing was the best solution until her participation in the working group helped her learn the complexities and challenges and potential solutions of Loop 360.

Roberts said TxDOT’s new plan is well-thought-out and considers drivers’ safety while handling capacity.

“We’re not necessarily trying to triple traffic on the road,” she said. “We’re trying to take care of existing traffic. Pulling out on the corridor is not as safe as having overpasses or underpasses where you might have a U-turn.”

Congestion relief

Although adjusting traffic signals will be a short-term fix, longer-term Loop 360 improvements include adding one lane in each direction in the median and grade-separating intersections, which means adding overpasses or underpasses and access ramps that would pick up vehicles from office buildings and neighborhoods that currently feed directly onto Loop 360.

“Intersection improvements and adding two lanes to the existing traffic are partial solutions, and they’re interim measures,” Byron said. “Until you get to grade-separating the existing four lanes you’re not really getting to a solution that will last 20 years.”

Richards said he has commuted on Loop 360 for 12 years and knows the frustration of congestion. He said he supports adding the new lanes, but he does worry how the proposals will affect traffic on US 183 and South MoPac.

“For people using [Loop 360] as a pass-through, is it going to get built up at the end points?” he said. “One scenario shows flyovers at the ends, but that could invite more traffic.”

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Construction 5 years out

TxDOT is now creating a conceptual layout that outlines which of its proposed solutions are best for each part of Loop 360. Byron said the agency will have more public input opportunities likely next summer.

“This is probably one of the most critical parts of the public involvement process because it’s where the rubber meets the road, where people are really going to be invested in who gets an overpass initially and who doesn’t,” he said.

The conceptual layout is expected to take 12 months to complete and will also detail how much construction Loop 360 could handle at any time as well as outlining where overpasses, underpasses and the access ramps would go.

“The main goal is to start getting traffic lights off the main lanes, but while we’re doing the initial overpasses and underpasses there are [intersection improvements and added lanes]we may be doing in other areas to ease the traffic congestion until we can get to them with their overpasses,” Byron said.

After the conceptual layout, TxDOT will proceed with obtaining environmental clearance and completing the design, which takes between three and five years. Byron said TxDOT aims to have the first couple of projects ready for construction in five years when funding becomes available.

The timeline came at a shock to some residents, including Richards.

“I would hope it would have happened a bit sooner,” he said. “Once you see the vision you want it to happen as soon as possible.”

How quickly projects could be completed depends on funding. Byron said TxDOT will separate concepts into smaller individual projects because those are easier to fund. These projects would be at major intersections and would provide the greatest amount of traffic relief on their own, he said.

Although TxDOT has more money to allocate to projects because of voter-approved propositions 1 and 7, Byron said the agency has a backlog of projects it needs to fund.

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Amy Denney
Amy has been reporting in community journalism since 2007. She worked in the Chicago suburbs for three years before migrating south and joined Community Impact Newspaper in September 2010. Amy has been editor of the Northwest Austin publication since August 2012 and she is also the transportation beat reporter for the Austin area.
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