2020 is year for US Hwy 183 safety improvements

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Two weeks ago, this six-vehicle crash occurred on US Hwy 183 and Long Run. Local residents say in the absence of a left turn lane, they fear for their safety turning off the highway as traffic is moving 70mph or faster. Williamson County says improvements are scheduled for 2020. (Courtesy Photo)

By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM

The first two cars collided around 4:45 p.m. Then, barrelling down this narrow, 70-mph stretch of Highway 183, a third car plowed into them. And then a fourth.

This pile-up occurred two weeks ago near the US Highway 183 intersection with FM 3405. Just three minutes up the road is the turn into Saratoga Springs Drive, where two years ago, 15-year-old Koby Draper and 9-year-old Kirsten Draper lost their lives after a drunk driver struck their mother’s car. She was waiting to turn into her subdivision at Saratoga Springs.

The tragedy drew statewide attention, and prompted Williamson County Commissioner Cynthia Long to push for the construction of a left-hand turn lane, in addition to more short-term additions such as expanded shoulders and a buffer space down the center of traffic.

The process to install a turn lane on 183, she warned in 2015, would be long, especially given the $58 million they would need to find.

A Texas Department of Transportation representative in the Georgetown office, Kelli Reyna, told The Independent last week that funding has now been secured. They had “jumped through hurdles,” she said, to acquire the now estimated $1.4 million on an expedited schedule.

Construction for the turn lane, which will extend from County Road 212 up to Live Oak Trail, is set to begin in 2020.

No sign is visible yet of the center-line buffer space or expanded shoulders.

“There’s a lot of work to be done before construction, and we are taking every step we can to accelerate the process,” she said, “But we need to do it the safe way.

“It’s not a funding issue, or desirability related. It’s the planning,” she said, taking pains to emphasize that the project is a high priority for Commissioner Long, who represents Liberty Hill on the Commissioners Court.

“We take it seriously. We take it personally. These crashes are not nameless faces,” she said.

The 0.3 mile stretch covered by the expansion would help reduce the number of collisions that occur there, Long told KXAN two years ago. The station reported that 39 crashes had occurred in a two-block radius of the site where the Drapers were hit.

Neighbors then described the stretch of 183 north of Liberty Hill as a “death trap,” with its high speeds, narrow lanes, lack of shoulders and few turn lanes.

The six-car pileup two weeks ago has renewed the calls for safety measures among some residents who live to Liberty Hill’s north along 183.

Steve Coombes, who lives off County Road 258, says the issue raised a discussion at the meeting of the homeowners association he belongs to.

Coombes says that when he wants to leave his neighborhood, and turn onto 183, the 70mph speed limit and short viewing distance allowed make it extremely dangerous.

Many from his homeowners association, he said, have expressed trouble with the intersection, and cars already speeding down the highway frequently have to swerve around them to avoid a collision.

He measured the distance one morning, he said, and did some calculations.

“You have six seconds to make that turn onto 183 and reach full speed,” he said. “And I can tell you it takes longer than six seconds.”

Coombes would like to see the speed limit reduced on the road, as “there’s no need to be going that fast through here,” he said, especially when developments are building up rapidly.

He and others have tried to request a speed reduction from Long, he said, but TXDoT has brushed aside the attempts.

Austin-based TxDOT representative Chris Bishop said that speed limit reductions are not always the safest measure one can take on a highway, and in fact, they can actually make it more dangerous.

The “85th percentile” rule, codified in state law, suggests that speed limits be set at what 85 percent of drivers currently go. Any less than that, Bishop said, and many will begin to ignore the sign and go their own speed. Some however, would follow it, and there lies the danger.

“Roads are safest when everyone is going the same speed,” he said, and furthermore, against common intuition, many crashes are not simply caused by driving too fast.

The intersection Coombes’ drives out of, County Road 258, is one mile up north 183 from Liberty Hill. FM 3405, where the six-car pileup occurred, is two and a half miles up from there. And Saratoga Springs, where the Draper tragedy occurred, is three miles from there.

The entire span at 70mph takes approximately five minutes to drive.

Waylon@LHIndependent.com

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