When Sarah Ware Kline was considering a move to Dripping Springs while still living in Circle C, she heard from realtors that traffic safety on U.S. Hwy. 290 between Oak Hill and Dripping Springs was a concern. After buying a home in Belterra, a master-planned community with homes in the $400,000 to $700,000 range, in 2017, she soon developed first-hand experience with the issue.
Kline was driving with her daughter to her favorite coffee shop, Summer Moon. Like many businesses and residential neighborhoods in Dripping Springs, it required her to make a sharp turn off the highway. Another driver was speeding nearby, and a third car was entering the highway from the same strip mall. The factors left her with no other choice but to drive into a ditch on the side of the road—or risk a crash. Although Kline and her daughter were fine, and her car sustained no damage, the incident "really shook (her) up."
Between 2016 and 2020, there have been nearly 900 crashes and 15 fatal crashes along 290, according to TxDOT data. Residents, including Kline, have taken notice. She started a petition requesting that the Texas Department of Transportation reduce the speed limit on the stretch of 290 in 2019. More than 1,800 people signed; after a safety study, TxDOT changed the speed limit from 60 mph to 55 mph last August.
Other changes are underway. TxDOT installed a new traffic signal at the 290 and Trautwein Road intersection, and Hays County is in the midst of three intersection improvement projects along 290, where county roads intersect with the state highway. But local public officials and safety experts say that fatal crashes will remain an issue due to Dripping Springs' exponential growth, which has flooded the highway with new drivers, most of whom use it as Main Street despite its highway design. "Kids are standing on the side of 290 getting onto school busses," Kline said. "It's not a typical highway."
Hays County Commissioner Walt Smith moved to Dripping Springs in 2012. Although he didn't know it at the time, the county population was exploding. Between 2010 and 2019, Hays County was the second fastest-growing county in the U.S. on a percentage basis. Most of this growth has been concentrated in the Kyle and Buda areas and Dripping Springs, which more than doubled in size during the same period, growing from 2,196 people to 5,708.
The population increase has strained the area's infrastructure in every category: water, sewage, schools and roads. "Any type of service that is needed, we are at a point where we need to make some large infrastructure improvements as a state (and) as a county," Smith said.
This includes 290, which was built as a connecting route between Austin and Houston in the early 20th century. Since then, however, its use between Oak Hill and Dripping Springs has changed dramatically as developments have sprouted up on either side, with driveways directly off the highway and thousands of residents in need of getting to their area schools, businesses and commuter jobs. The resulting traffic congestion and the highway's design—which includes a center-turn lane but no feeder roads or median—has led to an average of 180 crashes a year, or nearly one every other day, along the stretch.
TxDOT surveyed more than 500 residents at open houses, through the mail and online in the fall of 2019. "I have narrowly escaped DEATH several times on Highway 290 West (between Oak Hill and Dripping Springs," Tomas Johannsen wrote in an Oct. 2019 email to TxDOT, citing the center, left-turn lanes as the source of his concern.
While the survey results led to a reduced speed limit and the installation of a new traffic signal, the department is in the planning phases of unnamed longer-term safety improvements. Construction on future projects could take up to 2023 to begin, according to a department spokesperson.
The county is also working on safety improvements, including looking at the possibility of constructing a parallel road south of 290, which would allow commuter traffic to bypass the stretch in question entirely, and increasing law enforcement presence in the area. "We at the county, the impact we can have on a state highway, I'm not going to say it's minimal," Smith said. It requires coming at the problem creatively, he added.
Although crashes declined slightly in 2020, it's hard to know how much of that change is due to safety improvements versus changing traffic patterns due to the pandemic.
Jay Blazek Crossley, director of the nonprofit Vision Zero Texas, which aims to end traffic deaths, said the reduced speed limit has helped improve safety along 290, which he described as "one of the worst examples of dangerous street design."
But Crossley takes issue with TxDOT's plans to improve mobility on the stretch of 290 between Oak Hill and Dripping Springs. Highway expansion encourages further sprawl, increasing the number of drivers and miles traveled on roads like 290. Traffic safety, on the other hands, requires lessening the time people spend in cars, such as by providing public transit or access to jobs that don't require a commute into the city of Austin.
"TxDOT should be helping Round Rock and Bastrop and Kyle and Dripping Springs build up instead of out and should be facilitating the type of transportation that works for that," he said.
- Former Westlake High champ dies in highway crash with semi ... ›
- APD ramps up traffic patrols after seeing more fatalities during ... ›
- A dream venue for all ages: Dreamland Dripping Springs - austonia ›
- Tesla driven by drunk teen bursts into flames in Tarrytown crash - austonia ›
Downtown may be recovering from the pandemic but the priorities residents want in their city center are changing, according to the City Pulse Survey done by design firm Gensler.
After studying 7,500 people in 15 global markets, including Austin, Gensler found that life in COVID has pushed city-dwellers to want more outdoor activities, social spaces and entertainment venues in bustling business districts.
Post-pandemic, the highest-rated downtown activities were shopping, visiting parks and just “hanging out.” The need for more public spaces like parks jumped from sixth on the list to second this year.
Although globally people view downtown as a business district for task-based activities, across the U.S., downtown districts are viewed more as a vehicle for entertainment. This is especially true for Austinites, where people surveyed said they would rather see more entertainment and cultural venues than shopping or public transit downtown.
For Melanie Gartman, a manager at construction software company Levelset who has been living in Austin for most of her life, the needs and wants of the average resident closely align with her own.
Austin clocked in second-most desirable downtown, tied with Charlotte, North Carolina. Like the 78% of Austinites in the survey, Gartman said she thinks Downtown Austin is hanging on to its lovable charm.
“Even now with fewer people out and about it's still very vibrant and lively. I feel like I saw life come back to downtown a lot sooner than I expected it to,” Gartman said. “It's still holding on a bit that Austin vibe and with the high rises coming in, it's scary that we could lose that. I think it's holding on better than I would have expected, especially within the last two years of everything that happened.”
As Austinites eased back into downtown, the first stop Gartman made was to go see music again. Since venues opened back up, Gartman and her loved ones have seen live music at their favorite venues: Moody Amphitheatre, Mohawk, The Parish and Empire Control Room.
Blackillac opened for Gary Clark Jr. at the Moody Amphitheater's first show back in August. (Laura Figi/Austonia)
Entertainment is most important for Gartman’s life in Austin—seeing Gary Clark Jr. in August brought normalcy back into her routine—and said our local downtown is the ideal out of other cities in Texas.
“I've always noticed that between Houston’s downtown and Austin’s, Houston's is so Monday to Friday, eight to five, maybe a post-work happy hour,” Gartman said. “Growing up, downtown (Austin) was always the place to go. It has always been the hub and I think Austin is unique in that way.”
Traffic in downtown areas is way down overall, even though concern over pandemic safety has taken a backseat. Shopping traffic has decreased by 28%, dining out and entertainment attendance dropped by 33% in the post-pandemic sphere.
Even though her office is located downtown, Gartman usually works from home. Her downtown visits tend to be for the purpose of entertainment and she said the lack of parking sometimes becomes problematic.
“I feel like all these high rises are taking over all the parking,” Gartman said. “It used to be for go-to parking, I would just park under I-35. No big deal. But now, that’s kind of scary, especially if you're by yourself. The party parking is a barrier to actually making it down there.”
But with the rise of the hybrid work model, it’s likely that the downtown sphere is going to change all across the U.S. For now, survey participants said they would like to see their downtown reduce traffic, add more green space, improve the cityscape and increase parking capacity as we shape the future of cities.
3 Akins High School students caught with ammunition, magazines after report of armed person on campus
Akins Early College High School, 10701 S. 1st St., was on lockdown Wednesday morning as district police investigated a report of an "armed subject." The three students, which a witness said they saw with a weapon, have since been identified and located.
The lockdown took place just after 10 a.m., when someone reported three students in the restroom with a possible handgun. The three were then identified and located in different classrooms. One of the students had two magazines, one with ammunition. A weapon was not located by police.
The district deescalated the lockdown to a hold at 12:25 p.m., which meant students could go to the restroom and be picked up if parents chose to do so. No shots were fired and all students and staff were safe throughout the whole lockdown, according to police.
The three students will not be returning to school tomorrow. Austin ISD police said the students' punishment with the school or charges have not been identified since the investigation is in the early stages. Additional officers will be on campus this week to investigate.
"We take these events seriously and we prepare so that at the end of the day, everyone can go home safe," Austin ISD Police Chief Ashley Gonzalez said.
The Taylor Police Department is investigating an apparent murder-suicide that left four people dead on Tuesday.
Officers responded to a call at around 1 p.m. for a welfare check at 616 Symes St. in Taylor, Texas, where the Taylor Fire Department helped force entry into the home since it was locked, police said. Once inside, officers found four dead bodies: 57-year-old Anthony Davis, 45-year-old Araceli Lopez Davis, 20-year-old Cynthia Abundiz and 18-year-old Pedro Navarro.
Police believe the deaths to be a murder-suicide with Anthony Davis shooting the other three victims before himself. TPD is investigating with the help of the Williamson County Sheriff's Office and the Texas Rangers.
Later that day, another murder was reported in Taylor, which police say is unrelated.
Police responded to a shooting at 2100 Whistling Way around 4 p.m. Tuesday. They said a family member found 33-year-old Jonathan Hitch with a gunshot wound to his head. It is being investigated as a suspicious death.