“It wasn’t here a few months ago,” said Marilyn King, Central Texas Auto Care manager. “I’ve had several customers tell me they’ve almost hit the pole, coming around that corner.”
King’s business is not the only one grappling with the oddity. Across RM 620, near Short Stop, three orange cones surround a relocated utility pole that bisects the parking lot.
The displaced poles are making way for a much larger project.
Construction on one of Round Rock’s busiest east-west roadways—long plagued by its intersection with the Union Pacific railroad tracks just west of I-35—is expected to begin this fall.
Efforts to improve congestion and safety through road widening, new bridges and a roundabout will break ground, following the Texas Department of Transportation’s anticipated action in August, said Bobby Ramthun, Williamson County area engineer with TxDOT.
Road work ahead
Plans call for road realignment from I-35 to Deep Wood Drive, with one bridge over the railroad tracks and a second over Lake Creek Drive, according to TxDOT.
After exiting I-35, westbound through traffic will encounter the first traffic signal at Deep Wood, according to Round Rock Director of Transportation Gary Hudder. Drivers can use an access ramp at Lake Creek to get to Round Rock High School, businesses and homes between Lake Creek and Deep Wood.
A roundabout will be constructed under the bridge that will span the railroad tracks. The roundabout will provide access to Chisholm Trail Road and to businesses between I-35 and Lake Creek. U-turn capability will provide a safe way to find an alternate route should a slow-moving or stopped train block the roundabout, according to materials provided by the city of Round Rock.
Crews will widen RM 620 to five or six lanes, and in some places maintain the current four lanes of traffic, depending on the presence of access roads.
In all, TxDOT estimates the project will take 28-30 months to complete after breaking ground.
Vince Tu opened a Comet Cleaners at 1304 RM 620 in 1994. He said he has weathered his share of ebbs and flows in his 25 years of business. But plans for the multiyear transportation project have cast a shadow on his hopes for the future.
“We’ve been hearing about this for years, and now it’s finally here,” Tu said. “We’ll stick it out and see what happens, but I’m not hopeful about it.”
Tu’s business is one of 78 establishments that have frontage on the 1-mile stretch of RM 620 between I-35 and Deep Wood.
Currently, more than 40,000 cars pass Tu’s storefront every day, according to traffic counts from TxDOT. In a few years, that will change drastically. Between 70-85% of that traffic is expected to take the bridges, according to Hudder. This means the majority of traffic will pass by the cluster of strip centers and restaurants underneath.
“All our customers say they’ll continue to come here,” Tu said. “I know human nature. You’ll get on that bypass, and you won’t stop for the dry cleaners.”
Sabrina Garcia alters clothing and creates custom home decor in a neighboring shopping center. Garcia said her business, Divine, has been located on RM 620 for four years.
“The construction is going to be pretty challenging,” Garcia said. “We’re going to suffer a little bit.”
Round Rock High School and the district’s central administration facility are located within the future construction zone.
With teenage drivers and school buses, the district is bracing for impact during its peak traffic times—drop-off and pickup.
“We know today that there are complications on the horizon,” said Terry Worcester, chief operating officer for RRISD. “We are being proactive to plan to mitigate some of those complications.”
As it stands, the RRISD Transportation Department is in the process of creating bus routes for the upcoming school year, with classes beginning Aug. 15.
“Safety is highest priority, and that includes students, public members as well as school bus drivers,” Worcester said. “We want to be able to accommodate any and all people arriving and departing our campuses as safely as possible.”
Jenny LaCoste-Caputo, district spokesperson, said RRISD expects changes to the traffic flow because of the project.
“We will integrate the routing system at the beginning of the year,” LaCoste-Caputo said. “If we have to modify as construction continues, we will.”
A communication campaign—with graphics, maps of desirable routes and wayfinding signage on site—will include information on the district’s website and social media messaging, LaCoste-Caputo said.
“One of our advantages of being a campus as opposed to being a storefront is that we don’t have random people coming in and out,” LaCoste-Caputo said. “We see the same population day in and day out, and we have the means to communicate with them.”
At the conclusion of construction, Worcester said the district anticipates improved traffic flow to the region.
“Any improvement is going to be welcome, particularly if the congestion is mitigated,” he said.
30 years in the making
St. David’s Round Rock Medical Center opened in 1984 as the first hospital in Round Rock. Located west of I-35 at 2400 RM 620, access hinged on the railroad crossing near Chisholm Trail Road.
“This rapidly growing, booming community had one hospital,” Hudder said. “Access to the hospital was potentially, critically interrupted by a train crossing [RM] 620.”
The city of Round Rock, TxDOT and Williamson County engaged in multiple efforts over a 30-year period to create a solution, Hudder said.
“All of these big projects are only successful when you have a project champion,” he said. “Somebody has to push the project through come hell or high water.”
Despite a series of efforts, a solution for the railroad crossing languished, Hudder said.
Over time as other medical facilities opened in Round Rock, he said, the railroad crossing became less a public health liability and more a congestion concern.
In 2011, when Hudder joined the city of Round Rock, he said the RM 620 project was one of the first he was asked to tackle. Alongside design engineers from Halff Associates, Hudder and his team dreamed up an innovative roundabout to provide access to Chisholm Trail Road and businesses near I-35 and a bridge to shuttle through traffic over the railroad, solving conflicts with the train.
The city and TxDOT had to acquire right of way—22 parcels of land from Deep Wood to I-35, according to data provided by the city of Round Rock. This included relocating six businesses—notably the historic Stagecoach Inn, Maaco and Wendy’s—and eight homes.
After facing delays negotiating elements of the project with Union Pacific, TxDOT did not send the project out for bid in April, as previously anticipated, Ramthun said. Now, the agency expects to initiate the bidding process in August.
“We feel confident we’re not going to have any more delays at this point,” he said.
The road ahead
Throughout construction, TxDOT will prioritize keeping four lanes of traffic—two in each direction—open during daylight hours, Ramthun said. Initially, much of the work is expected to take place outside of current traffic patterns.
“For the majority of the first part of the project—almost a year—folks will still be driving more or less exactly where they are today,” he said. “They’ll see a lot of construction work going on, but they’ll still be driving the same roads they’ve been driving on.”
Still, he said, drivers should expect delays with crews operating in the area.
“People need to be prepared,” Ramthun said. “It’ll take a little bit of patience.”
As a construction start date looms, King said questions remain. Uncertainty about the flow of local traffic during construction poses a concern for the business.
“It’s the things you don’t know,” King said. “That’s where the real concern is.”