How can Round Rock solve I-35 congestion problems? Officials say local roadway expansions offer long-term solutions

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Then and now:
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Snapshot:
In April regional transportation planning agency Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization began holding a series of open houses to provide information on its upcoming 2045 Arterials Plan.

According to Round Rock’s Transportation Master Plan, arterial roads are “continuous routes whose function is to serve high-volume needs of local traffic and regional traffic.”

The arterials plan is a cog in CAMPO’s larger 2045 Regional Transportation Plan, a planning document that encompasses regional, county and municipal plans designed to provide foresight and vision to regional transportation goals.

“We’re providing a forum for municipalities to come and talk to each other, and that’s including TxDOT and even transit. A bit of it is connecting the dots, but it’s also getting people on the same page,” CAMPO Regional Planning Manager Kelly Porter said.

At its completion the 2045 Regional Transportation Plan will include provisions for multimodal transportation plans, incorporating considerations for mass transit, pedestrian and biking pathways, interstate highway planning and more.

CAMPO’s 2045 arterials plan will be one of the first regional planning documents the agency compiles from the transportation plans of regional partners.

Bob Daigh, Williamson County’s senior director of Infrastructure and a member of CAMPO’s Technical Advisory Committee, believes the regional agency will likely adopt the arterials plans sculpted by local counties and municipalities.

“Round Rock, Cedar Park and others have really taken a lot of thoughtful time to develop a transportation plan that was appropriate for their areas,” Daigh said.

In the past two years, Round Rock and Williamson County officials have bolstered their respective arterial road plans that reflect the current—and future—growth of the region.

ARTERIAL PLANNING


University Boulevard, RM 620 and A.W. Grimes Boulevard are considered Round Rock’s “principal” arterials, according to Texas Department of Transportation documents. Other roads, such as Gattis School Road, Mays Street, Hwy. 79 and more, are considered “minor” arterials.

Gary Hudder, director of the  Round Rock Department of Transportation, said that arterials, by definition, exist to eliminate conflict points.

“We’ll limit driveway access and try to manage a lot of signals [on arterials,]” Hudder said.

Round Rock’s most recent transportation master plan update was adopted in October and includes directives on planning for arterial road expansion in the future.

Hudder said the city also regularly talks with developers to accommodate traffic patterns in high-growth areas.

“The things that drive how we deliver that [arterials] plan are where and at what pace the growth is,” Hudder said.

A recent example of an arterial project moving up in priority, according to Hudder, is the expedited construction process for the proposed Kenney Fort Boulevard extension. That arterial project will eventually connect Old Settlers Boulevard to SH 45 N with a six-lane arterial roadway.

The city has had plans in one form or another for the north-to-south roadway since 1988, but Hudder commented that the Kalahari Resorts & Conventions development pushed the Kenney Fort expansion up in priority.

“Development shows up, and we’re like, ‘OK, we need to move that project forward to deal with it,’” Hudder said.

But Kalahari has presented a distinct challenge for the city. Due to its scope and function, the development is unlike anything the city has planned alongside in the past. City staff had to dig up data from Kalahari’s other locations in Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania to see what kind of stress they put on the road systems.

Both Hudder and Daigh commented that Round Rock is in serious need of more northbound and southbound arterial roadways to help move local traffic through the city. According to the two, more arterial extension—such as the Kenney Fort extension—is needed to alleviate congestion from I-35 and A.W. Grimes Boulevard.

“If you look north and south through Round Rock there’s some challenges because a lack of north and south mobility,” Daigh said. “That’s why everyone jumps on [I-]35, even for short trips.”

Looking at Round Rock Department of Transportation data, northbound and southbound arterial roadways have substantially climbed in use in the past decade. Mays Street traffic counts have risen by 48 percent since 2008. A.W. Grimes has spiked more dramatically in that same time, with traffic counts up by 82.6 percent.

The Kenney Fort extension will direct some northbound and southbound local traffic off A.W. Grimes, Hudder said, and the city and county have coordinated on plans to expand Mays.

According to Hudder, designs are being drawn to run Mays parallel with I-35 throughout the entirety of Round Rock, all the way from Pflugerville on the southern end of town up to Georgetown.

GROWTH AND CONGESTION


According to U.S. Census Bureau data, Williamson County experienced a 25 percent growth in its population from 2010-16, resulting in approximately 100,000 more county residents. In that same time, Round Rock grew by 21 percent, picking up close to 20,000 residents.

As the population has ballooned, more and more drivers are electing to use I-35 as their primary route of travel.

In 2010, the highest average of drivers at any point through Round Rock was 175,000 vehicles per day, according to the oldest publicly available TxDOT data. Six years later, the highest average was 236,000 vehicles per day.

Moving local traffic off I-35 is a vital undertaking for the city and county. The Texas Transportation Institute, a transportation research agency, predicts it will take a little under three hours to commute the 18 miles from Round Rock to downtown Austin by 2040 if no work is done to change traffic patterns on I-35.

The problem may be that design and construction simply cannot keep up with Williamson County’s extreme population growth.

“I would highlight University Boulevard. That is a horribly congested area for us. We’ve been working to widen that for five years now,” Hudder said. “Had that been anticipated and planned for differently years ago … it might have been easier for us.”

From 2009-18, University Boulevard increased in average daily drivers by 10,000 cars, a 53 percent rise.

CURRENTLY UNDERWAY


Round Rock currently has major arterial expansions underway. In coordination with Williamson County, RM 620 is going through reconstruction to expand into a six-lane roadway. The county’s widening work is expected to finish before the end of spring.

Work on the congested University will begin imminently as well. Designs for the roadway expansion are complete and include plans to widen to a six-lane, median-divided urban arterial with dual turn lanes. Utility relocation is expected to begin this summer.

Hudder then expects the city to break ground on the Kenney Fort extension sometime in late 2019, prior to Kalahari Resorts opening in 2020.

CAMPO anticipates adopting its full 2045 Regional Transportation Plan in 2019. Per Porter, the agency is looking at models and collecting regional arterial plans and data throughout the summer before returning to the public with the full plan in the fall.

A comprehensive CAMPO plan is essential to the region’s transportation viability, Hudder said. The agency uses its plan to lobby for funding which is then dispersed to projects throughout the region. CAMPO is now in the process of distributing approximately $400 million of state and federal transportation funds as part of the 2019-2022 Transportation Improvement Program (TIP).

The planning agency last year completed its 2045 Regional Active Transportation Plan, a planning document for biking and pedestrian road and trail networks which is another piece of the 2045 Regional Transportation Plan.

According to Doise Miers, community outreach manager for CAMPO, all but two of the active transportation plans recommended for funding in the TIP are projects also listed in the 2045 Regional Active Transportation Plan.

“The fact that projects are already being implemented shows that those projects are ready and that the planning process is working to prepare projects for implementation as funding becomes available,” Miers said.
By Iain Oldman
Iain Oldman joined Community Impact Newspaper in 2017 after spending two years in Pittsburgh, Pa., where he covered Pittsburgh City Council. His byline has appeared in PublicSource, WESA-FM and Scranton-Times Tribune. Iain worked as the reporter for Community Impact Newspaper's flagship Round Rock/Pflugerville/Hutto edition and is now working as the editor for the Northwest Austin edition.


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