The number of Round Rock road construction projects results from two decades’ worth of planning, allowing the city’s mobility plan to accommodate regional growth.
Numerous road projects, especially work being done along and near I-35, stem from a partnership among the Texas Department of Transportation, the city of Round Rock and Williamson County. The projects address one goal: Allow Round Rock’s projected 330,000 residents by 2040 to move as smoothly as possible on dozens of roads that will be upgraded and built in the next 20 years.
TxDOT spokesperson Diann Hodges said Round Rock and TxDOT collaborate frequently to work through the city’s growth and the effect the increased population will have on I-35.
“We meet early and often in the planning process to make sure all parties’ goals can be achieved,” Hodges said. “We also work together in getting the word out to the public on design and construction.”
The Texas Transportation Institute, a research firm studying transportation issues throughout the state, projects if nothing is done on I-35, it will take just under 3 hours to commute the 18 miles from Round Rock to downtown Austin by 2040. This is the impetus for Round Rock taking action now—working with TxDOT to make improvements on I-35 and expand major arterials, such as RM 620, Hwy. 79 and University Boulevard.
Round Rock City Council at an Oct. 12 meeting took the first steps in recent years to address these concerns strategically by unanimously voting to pass the first update to the city’s transportation master plan since 2004.
City’s Master Plan
The updated plan, compiled by Round Rock engineering firm HDR, uses public feedback from four neighborhood meetings, two open houses and an online survey of more than 1,000 respondents.
When residents were given the chance to sound off on mobility challenges and problems they cause, they identified three issues as needed priorities: congestion on I-35, congestion on city roadways and a need for more travel lanes, according to the results of the survey.
The transportation master plan states that 60 percent of land in the city and the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction has already been developed. The remaining area exists as agrarian or vacant land, most of which is located along I-35 in the northern section of the city. The plan concluded that the majority of growth, and therefore the site of future traffic congestion, coming to Round Rock would be focused in that area.
Round Rock Transportation Director Gary Hudder said Round Rock is not the only city facing these issues. Because I-35 is controlled by TxDOT, he said the city has little to do with carrying out proposed improvements.
Hudder said one of the major focus areas for TxDOT is addressing conflict points—areas in which drivers exiting the freeway are merging and weaving at the same time as drivers trying to enter the freeway.
TxDOT’s solution to this problem is using braided ramps, which separate the processes, preventing exiting vehicles from colliding with vehicles entering the highway. Without much surface-level distance to work with, Hudder said TxDOT is going vertical by using space above the existing freeway, which is why drivers currently see large structures adjacent to the freeway at RM 620.
Hudder said Round Rock’s independent review of problems in this corridor resulted in the same analysis as TxDOT’s, but the city also regularly works with the state agency to develop solutions.
In addition Round Rock is focused on doing what it can within the city’s own arterial road network to alleviate the need to use I-35, according to Hudder. He said the city is working on improving its own north-south roadways so residents can forgo I-35 entirely.
RM 620 expansion project
In the meantime Hudder said his department is working to alleviate congestion in areas surrounding I-35. One of these major projects, which Hudder says has been 20 years in the making, is the expansion of RM 620.
“The primary objective of our work on [RM] 620 is to address the heavy volume of traffic that is using it as more of a regional arterial road,” he said. “So I-35 traffic that is coming off on [RM] 620 and wanting to go further to the west than right here locally in Round Rock.”
Although the county has begun roadwork on the expansion, the city continues to work on securing all necessary rights of way for the bridge over Chisholm Trail. Hudder said this acquisition project is likely 90 percent done. In the next calendar year, Hudder said he hopes to move into utility relocation and then onto construction bidding.
“We were very encouraged two weeks ago to see that TxDOT has put that project on their April 2019 construction letting—they will bid it for construction at that time,” Hudder said in late October.
Hudder said Round Rock has planned for a two-year widening project for RM 620. Officials with Round Rock ISD said they have already seen the benefit of improvements within this area.
RRISD Chief Operating Officer Bob Cervi said the lengthening of Pearson Ranch Road allows buses coming from the RRISD Transportation West Facility, located at 7900 Pearson Ranch Road, Austin, to complete their routes faster.
Cervi said he recognizes the RM 620 expansion will likely be a headache for the duration of the project, but RRISD is planning for it and looking forward to the advantages upon completion.
Currently, RRISD buses must make mandatory stops prior to crossing the railroad tracks under I-35, but with Round Rock’s plans, a new bridge will redirect traffic without having to cross directly atop the tracks.
“It will split the traffic in half—those that are going to businesses or school[s]or neighborhoods and split it with those that are going onto I-35,” Cervi said. “I think you will see a traffic flow speed-up from that standpoint.”
Cervi said as long as Round Rock is able to maintain the same lanes available on RM 620 as are available now, the traffic should be manageable during construction.
Downtown, neighborhood roads
Near I-35 and downtown, another construction project is in the works. Drivers are unable to travel on McNeil Road from I-35 to South Blair Street to reach downtown because of underground utility work being done.
This utility construction is part of the final phase of work being done in southwest downtown. Hudder said as soon as the project is complete, the city plans to bid construction for the realignment of McNeil Road south of Bagdad Avenue through the former Builders Gypsum Supply property.
“It will become a true bypass to the downtown area,” Hudder said.
Hudder said he estimates the project will take roughly eight months to complete and should be finished by late summer 2018.
The transportation department is also working on maintaining neighborhood streets throughout the entire city.
Hudder said improvements to neighborhood streets must come from the general fund, which also funds the majority of the city budget. For this reason, he said it is often difficult to receive funding for repaving or sealing.
However, the city has spent more than $30 million in neighborhood roadway resurfacing in the last six years.
“That kind of number is absolutely unheard of in a community the size of ours,” Hudder said.
Hudder said this is all part of a balance to address growing capacity while also maintaining existing roads.
The master plan highlighted a number of traffic generators that already exist within the city: RRISD, The Dell Diamond, Texas State University’s Round Rock campus, the Austin Community College campus, the Texas A&M Round Rock campus, Round Rock Premium Outlets, IKEA and Dell’s headquarters.
Although those may be the major traffic generators today, Hudder said the plan extends to 2040, and the city recognized that much could change during that time.
Kalahari Resorts & Conventions opening in Round Rock in 2020 will also generate traffic, so Hudder said the city is doing what it can to get ahead of construction. City Council on Oct. 26 approved the next step in expanding Kenney Fort Boulevard, which will eventually connect Georgetown and Pflugerville through Round Rock.
Round Rock will likely issue another update to the transportation master plan within five years so it can continually adjust to the changing atmosphere of the city.