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TravCo to study Hamilton Pool Road improvements

Thursday, March 5, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

Travis County Commissioners took the first step Tuesday toward potentially adding big changes to a section of Hamilton Pool Road, despite some opposition from area residents.

At the end of their regular voting session, commissioners unanimously agreed to award $530,000 to the engineering firm Binkley & Barfield Inc. to begin researching possible improvements to Hamilton Pool Road between RM 12 and the Pedernales River. But the measure didn’t cruise to a 4-0 passage (Commissioner Ron Davis was absent) without hitting a few speed bumps along the way.

Opponents showed up to Tuesday’s meeting to ask commissioners to leave the 6.5-mile stretch of roadway alone. Among them was southwest Travis County resident Hugh Winkler, who described his impression of the two-lane rural road with no shoulders.

“Our perception of the road as neighbors is we have a little country road where the vegetation does close in and we like that, but we would like to maintain that character,” Winkler said.

He went on to say that widening the road or adding shoulders could lead to an increase in the 45 mph speed limit. “I think that once you’ve added those shoulders, I believe you’re lawfully bound, if I’m not mistaken, to do the 85th percentile rule,” Winkler said, referring to the method by which traffic engineers establish speed limits by pegging them to 85 percent of observed drivers on a given roadway.

Winkler’s warning was given credence by county staff, but with a qualification. “Any time the look of the road is changed dramatically, if it’s been widened or redirected, then we’ll do a 85th percentile (speed study) to evaluate the speed limits,” said Steve Manila of the Travis County Transportation and Natural Resources Department.

Because this project is merely a study of possible improvements, however, there is no indication that any resulting work would be substantial enough to trigger a new speed study.

Still, the concerns over increased speeds found an ally in Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who otherwise gave his full support to the improvement project. When he ultimately motioned for the item’s approval, he accepted an amendment by County Judge Sarah Eckhardt to include “an intent to keep the current speed at the same level.”

On Wednesday, Daugherty told the Austin Monitor, “I do think that we will actually be able to maintain the speed of that road.”

Even with those assurances, Winkler and his fellow neighbors urged the court to focus on improving the eastern stretch of Hamilton Pool Road between SH 71 and Ranch Road 12. They argued that that part sees far more traffic, predominantly due to the higher concentration of residential development.

Daugherty told the Monitor that the idea has merit. “If I was responsible for all of (Hamilton Pool Road), I might go to the east side, just because of the sheer volume on it,” he said.

But that matter is largely moot since the eastern part of the roadway is controlled and maintained by the Texas Department of Transportation, with Travis County having little say over improvement projects. Staff also pointed out that the money for this particular item came from a 2005 bond vote, and the language specifically dedicated it to the county-controlled portion of the road.

Daugherty added that the western part of the road is no stranger to lots of traffic, either. Two popular recreational areas — Hamilton Pool Preserve and Milton Reimers Ranch Park — sit near the western terminus of the 6.5-mile stretch and draw visitors throughout the year.

“The truth of the matter is we have a giant magnet on Hamilton Pool Road, and you do have to use the western part of the road to get (there),” Daugherty said Tuesday.

Another resident opposed to the work, Ric Sternberg, used video to illustrate just how light traffic can be on his side of the roadway. He played commissioners a clip that showed a dashboard-view ride from RM 12 west to the river. The clip shows only 12 cars passing in the eastbound lane throughout the entire drive. Sternberg told commissioners that only 10 vehicles passed during two similar runs.

After the clip ended, Travis County park ranger Dan Chapman countered that it wasn’t indicative of the road’s peak travel times. He said that in the past three years, the traffic during peak times has grown tremendously.

“Generally, this is only on weekends and summertime when we’re swimming,” Chapman said. “At the opening of the preserve, we have so many people showing up because they know the parking lot will fill out. They’ll occasionally spill out on the road.”

Eckhardt agreed with Daugherty that this kind of traffic was engineered by the county when it purchased the parkland in the area. “And in order to maintain the love for the program for having purchased these acres, we need to provide a certain amount of access to it,” she said.

“Hamilton Pool is part of our Balcones Canyonlands Preserve and one of the only ones publicly available,” Eckhardt continued. “And we don’t want the majority of the other 3,000 acres to be available to recreational use, because it impinges on the very survival of large numbers of species in Travis County. So we’re trying to strike a balance.”

Commissioner Brigid Shea questioned whether that balance could include prioritizing the improvement study to look at access to Hamilton Pool Preserve as well as an aging bridge over Hamilton Creek. Shea’s inquiry prompted Eckhardt to offer both of those ideas as friendly amendments to Daugherty’s motion to pass the item.

Daugherty told Eckhardt he would accept the speed limit notion but wasn’t in favor of limiting the project’s scope.

“Hey, I want all of it to be done,” he said.

 

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