Forum eyes road study of RR 620, Hwy. 71

Buzz Watkins, a Lake Travis business owner and Chamber of Commerce member, said traffic along the RR 620 corridor is "screwed up right now," and there currently are no plans to fix the problem for the next 25–30 years.

Watkins, owner of Sail & Ski Center, and Kent O'Brien, owner of O'Brien Engineering Services in Lakeway, began putting together a transportation advocacy group with the help of LTCC President Laura Mitchell in January. The group began as part of the Southshore forum—a forum put together by the LTCC to provide area officials an avenue to talk about issues facing the western Travis County area.

"The perspective that Laura [Mitchell] and I have been working on is to try to bring people together and try to work on the problem, because traffic in the lake area is becoming worse and worse every day," Watkins said. "I think most of us think it is just something that gets taken care of—that people are actually working on it. As we start looking into it more, we start to hear a few alarming things [about] the whole lake area—Hwy. 71 and the [RR] 620 corridor. If you look at the [Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization] plan there is nothing going on out there at all."

Getting started

O'Brien, who spent more than 30 years working on traffic planning, was named leader of the group.

"I've done this sort of thing with other chambers—[the] Greater Austin Chamber and San Antonio. [There are] challenges we have in the area with mobility. We all know that we are faced with growing congestion, decreasing mobility opportunities and increased time frames to get where we are going," O'Brien said.

The group includes city officials, school district superintendents and politicians from the area, including state Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin, and Precinct 3 County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, O'Brien said.

"We have a good mix of public entities in the area," he said.

O'Brien said much of the first meeting was a discussion about making the coalition's voice heard by CAMPO, the Texas Department of Transportation and other organizations in charge of road planning and construction.

"Part of the discussions was, 'How do we as a region of the Southshore area of Lake Travis position ourselves so we can be considered when there are public dollars available for transportation and mobility improvement-type projects?'" O'Brien said.

CAMPO is more likely to recognize a project when there has been a traffic and mobility study completed, something that has not been done along the RR 620 and Hwy. 71 corridors in Lakeway and Bee Cave, O'Brien said.

"If you don't define a problem then you don't get attention. No one is going to add you to any plan. No one is going to say, 'We really need to work on that area,'" Watkins said. "You have to do the studies first and then you get the resources allocated after that."

The study would include an updated demographic study for the area as well as understanding the traffic flow through the roadway—how much traffic is on the roads, how much traffic uses side streets, what kind of turning movement is available and what the peak traffic times are, O'Brien said.

Facilitating a study

While O'Brien said it is too early in the process for a cost estimate, he said the study would include RR 620 in Lakeway and Bee Cave, parts of Hwy. 71 and could stretch northward along RR 620 as far as Steiner Ranch, RR 2222 or even SH 45.

"It depends on how we are able to get agreements and funding mechanisms put into place," O'Brien said. "Right now we are focused on the Lakeway and Bee Cave area."

O'Brien said no formal timeline has been set, but he hopes to have the study started before the end of the year.

"Obviously everyone's timeline for improvements [on RR 620] is yesterday," he said. "It probably is a six- to eight-month timeline to get the study done and to get it done appropriately because you want to have the public be part of the process. That is a big component of the study, making sure that we do get that input from the public.

"Once we know all that and have worked with the public on potential improvement strategies, we will flesh those out based on practicality and feasibility while continuing to involve the public."

The group began discussing opportunities earlier this year for potential funding mechanisms to facilitate the study, O'Brien said.

O'Brien said he has also met with Daugherty and TxDOT engineer Greg Malatek about the potential for TxDOT and CAMPO funding available for the study.

"The unfortunate thing for those in the know is how difficult it is to find funding today," Daugherty said. "That is the problem. You can fix a lot of things if you have the resources to do it, but we [have more than just] a funding issue in a lot of western Travis County. We are relegated to try and find capacity effectively within the footprint of what we have on the road today."

Daugherty said a majority of the land in western Travis County is protected, making it difficult to find alternate travel routes and potentially stymying traffic solutions. He said cities will be forced to chose among buying right of way for road widening, elevating roads or sinking roads.

"I'm afraid that we are going to have to confine ourselves into finding capacity in one of those three ways, and each way is expensive," he said. "As I have continued to say to [Lakeway and Bee Cave officials], they are going to have to get into the game and pose the question of 'Are we ready to go to our taxpayers and [ask if they are] willing to identify some dollars to take to TxDOT?' TxDOT is looking for communities to bring some local dollars to the table so they have a reason to say, 'Hey we need to put some money into this.' TxDOT does not question the need, at all, for capacity out there."

Transportation Reinvestment Zone

The group has discussed the creation of a Transportation Reinvestment Zone, or TRZ, as a possible solution to fund the issues identified in the study, O'Brien said.

Once a TRZ is created, a base year is established. After that the subsequent increases in property tax revenue collected inside the zone can be used to finance a project in the zone. However, to create a TRZ, the proposed zone must be deemed underdeveloped by the city or county, and the improvements in the TRZ must promote public safety; facilitate the improvement, development, or redevelopment of property; facilitate the movement of traffic; and enhance the local entity's ability to sponsor transportation projects, according to TxDOT.

Bee Cave City Manager Frank Salvato, who has attended several transportation group meetings, said he has not spoken to Bee Cave City Council about the possibility of creating a TRZ but said he is aware it is a possibility. Salvato also said the formation could be handled by the Bee Cave Economic Development board.

Lakeway City Manager Steve Jones said he presented the idea to Lakeway City Council, but they were not receptive.

"The Council wants to know exactly where that money is going to go," he said. "Once the mobility study is completed and we know exactly what projects need to be done and how much they will cost, then I will go back to council with that information."