Road to fruition

RM 620 improvements could pave way for developments

When Williamson County voters approved a $228 million road bond package in 2006, one of the key sections of roadways identified for improvement was the portion of RM 620 that now stretches between SH 45 N and I-35.

Since the bonds were passed, the county has been consistently chipping away at improving the roadway itself and its arterial connectors. In December, construction crews started working on the most significant phase yet, an $18.3 million project that entails widening 2 miles of RM 620 between Cornerwood and Wyoming Springs drives.

Once completed, however, the improvements may not only increase the safety and mobility of one of Williamson County's most densely populated and heavily trafficked corridors, but also set the foundation for an area developers are anxious to build up.

"If you look at the demographics around the [RM] 620 area—the average income, the education, the children—those are the demographics everybody loves," said Russ Boles, a broker for Summit Commercial, a Williamson County commercial real estate firm. "Hospitals love them. Retailers love them. It is just fantastic.

"When the road gets wider, the traffic will flow better, and it will become even more desirable for commercial users. You have to set the table before you eat, and a good, big road is one of the main things [needed for development]."

Developers see RM 620 as a potential gold mine of opportunity; residents and commuters simply want the road improved to increase mobility. So in order to set the proverbial table that will satisfy the wants of both, Williamson County's leadership, in partnership with the City of Round Rock and the Texas Department of Transportation, is taking an aggressive approach to finding solutions to a roadway steeped with overlapping interests.

"When I first took office about nine years ago, I heard from the constituents that [RM] 620 was a major issue," Williamson County Precinct 1 Commissioner Lisa Birkman said. "Basically it is overcrowded, and we all know that."

State road, local problem

Linking SH 45 N to the south and I-35 to the east, RM 620 provides immediate access to the St. David's Round Rock Medical Center, small medical offices, Round Rock High School and a growing number of retail locations, business offices and housing.

"If you look at the connectivity [RM 620] provides to very significant local centers of importance all of those major roadways, plus the major origins and destination points, plus the housing there ... [it] really makes this stretch of roadway unique and critically important for the region," said Robert Daigh, senior director of infrastructure for Williamson County.

One of the challenges of improving RM 620 is the fact it remains a state-controlled highway. In the past, TxDOT has hesitated in ceding permission to local municipalities to improve its roads, said Richard Ridings, the general engineering consultant to Williamson County with HNTB Corp., an engineering firm hired to manage road projects for the county. Because of the effects of a tightening state budget, however, TxDOT recently has become more willing to allow municipalities to fund their own projects, he said.

"If that had been only TxDOT funds, it could have been several years before the project got underway," Ridings said.

Considering local transportation officials believe the roadway is approaching a critical mass of gridlock, Williamson County and Round Rock officials consider themselves fortunate the state is allowing construction to proceed.

"It has really been a three-party process," Ridings said. "It is difficult to come up with the money, the acceptable design, the right of way, the utility location—it is hard."

According to a 2010 traffic study commissioned by Williamson County, the section of RM 620 now under construction carries an average of 36,000 vehicles per day. The study also rated the roadway's traffic flow during peak hours. Measured on an A–F scale, with A signifying free-flowing traffic and F representing heavy congestion, RM 620 received a D.

The county estimates that by 2030, RM 620 traffic will increase to more than 79,000 vehicles per day.

"There are peaks when people use [RM 620]," Birkman said. "But because of the hospital and high school and all the other things located along that stretch, it is pretty much busy all the time."

One step at a time

In addition to the current project, which will add divided medians and dedicated left- and right-turn lanes to 2 miles of RM 620, Williamson County and the City of Round Rock have partnered on several other improvements to the corridor.

"We decided to divide [RM 620 improvements] into stretches," Birkman said.

Within the past four years, the corridor has seen the addition of dedicated right-turn lanes on RM 620 and the road widening and construction of several of its arterials. More projects appear to be on the way as well. The City of Round Rock plans to begin construction in 2015 on an RM 620 bridge and overpass system that will allow traffic to flow unimpeded over the Union Pacific railroad and Lake Creek Drive intersection. The county is also partnering with Round Rock ISD and developers to construct a new road and underpass near where RM 620 meets SH 45 N to allow access to new schools and housing planned for the area.

The final phase of improvements for RM 620 will be linking the 1 1/2 mile stretch between Williamson County's current project and the City of Round Rock's planned bridge and overpass system. On April 24, Round Rock Transportation Director Gary Hudder asked the Williamson County Bond Advisory Commission to consider including the project as part of a proposed fall bond election package.

"Eventually in the next five to 10 years there will be more improvements," Birkman said. "It is just a very expensive process."

Developers' dream

The largest determining factor for future development along RM 620 lies in the hands of the Robinson family, who owns the majority of undeveloped land extending south of RM 620 and into Travis County.

While the Robinsons agreed to sell the county land along the south side of

RM 620 for the current road-widening project, the family has remained tight-lipped as to what, if any, plans are in store for their remaining 8,000-acre tract. What developers and public officials do understand, though, is the potential the area surrounding RM 620 holds.

"The amount of value on [RM 620] is probably unequaled in the county," Boles said. "You have the people in the Brushy Creek [municipal utility district] who use it every day, the people in west Round Rock who use it every day and the values of all those homes and [commuters].

"That is the stuff developers dream about. Someday, if that is the Robinsons' plan, that is going to be a fantastic, high-priced development."

City and county planning officials have also taken into account what effect future development could have.

"No one can guarantee what is or isn't going to happen, but you need to be prepared for it," Ridings said. "If there are buildings and houses going into those locations, you need to make sure your corridor is sufficient to handle that traffic.

"There will be demands to increase [RM 620] again in the future. I just think the next time we will be a little more prepared."