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Robinson Road project plods along as design phase continues

August 8, 2018

The seemingly never-ending saga of congested traffic and frustrated drivers on Robinson Road in Oak Ridge North doesn’t seem to have an end in sight despite positive, but incremental, progress being made on a project designed to modify the road and its intersection with Hanna Road.

Oak Ridge North City Manager Vicky Rudy said while there are no immediate plans for any construction — something she said is years in the future — officials are now entering the third phase of the design portion of the project, which is the last segment of crafting the new roadway and intersection.

“There is no construction planned at this time,” Rudy emphasized. “There is a current design for a four-lane, undivided (road) alignment at Hanna Road and Robinson Road. The total project would signalize and improve the intersection.”

That aspect of future construction is Phase 1 of construction, Rudy explained. Phase 2 of the construction includes plans for a turn lane into the adjacent business park, and Phase 3 of the proposal calls for addressing Robinson Road further west toward Interstate 45 near more residential areas of the small city.

“We’ve been inching forward on (the project),” Rudy added. “We are currently wrapping up Phase 2 of design. In October, we should start Phase 3 of design. We have an inter-local agreement between Oak Ridge North (and) with the county to reimburse the city for (design) Phases 1 and 2.”

According to preliminary conceptual plans, the proposed Robinson Road and Hanna Road intersection project would eliminate the current “dog leg” design of the two roads and create a new diagonal roadway slicing through to the southeast to connect the northern end of Robinson and Hanna roads intersection with the southern end of the intersection of the two roads. A traffic signal would also be placed at the new, improved intersection.

Robinson Road problematic for years

Heavy traffic congestion, and the resulting frustrations of drivers, have plagued city officials in Oak Ridge North for years as Robinson Road has become a way for residents of new developments to the east to connect to I-45. Traffic woes are well know to area residents, who have become irritated at continual back-ups, long waits at intersections and delays in getting to the freeway.

In late February, the Oak Ridge North City Council met for a special session to discuss the city’s master thoroughfare plan, which was designed by Houston-based engineering firm BGE. The current engineering plans are being done by Houston-based engineering firm RPS Klotz Associates.

The study and resulting thoroughfare plan was first commissioned in April 2017 and funded by the city’s Economic Development Corp. The study is intended to be used to classify future roads and also as a means of communicating between grant writers and developers as construction in the area increases.

BGE representative Bill Kotlan said the plan could help solve potential traffic issues that clog Oak Ridge North roads during rush hour. The plan also too into consideration possible road conditions decades from now, when the amount of vehicles on Robinson Road may double.

“What’s happening is people are trying to get to I-45 whichever way they can,” Kotlan said during the meeting. “It’s like a flood where water goes anywhere it can.”

The draft thoroughfare plan, which was presented to city council for the first time during the February meeting, assigned Robinson Road and Hanna Road as primary thoroughfares, which are defined as roads meant to collect traffic and direct it to a freeway.

During the February meeting, Oak Ridge North Public Works Director Joe Sherwin said the lack of an effective thoroughfare grid is a challenge for the city as it grows. Mayor Jim Kuykendall also said traffic congestion is an issue in the city, notably during rush hour when it becomes increasingly difficult for residents to move north and south on Hanna Road and gridlock on Robinson Road often renders it virtually impassable.

The issue of Robinson Road and Hanna Road congestion dates back several years and has been the subject of contentious and inaccurate claims by some residents who believe the city is going to recklessly widen Robinson Road and possibly impact homes in the area.

Things began to worsen when the Imperial Oaks subdivision, located east of the 3,000-resident Oak Ridge North, exploded in growth, causing an estimated 16,000 cars a day to travel along Robinson Road, a two-lane thoroughfare which was only designed to carry 2,000 vehicles. The road faces limitations due to the two-lanes, but a “dog leg” misalignment at the intersections with Hanna Road causes cars to back up at stop signs and a nearby railroad crossing.

An $8 million plan to realign and widen Robinson Road was included in the $350 million road bond in May 2015 that was voted down by county residents, but the project was dropped off of the trimmed-down bond that later approved on Nov. 3, 2015, because it received resistance from residents for cutting a path through homes, a church and a school.

The previous plan to realign the road would have also opened up some land for the city to build a “Main Street”-style town plaza with walkable streets, shops and restaurants.

The concept was met with opposition from residents, and an online petition that had nearly 300 signatures in September 2015, advocated against the plan to widen and realign the road and also against the concept of the Town Plaza. “In an effort to maintain our quality of life in Oak Ridge North, we are asking for complete transparency in regard to the adopted Comprehensive Plan for Oak Ridge North,” the petition stated.

City officials went back to the drawing board in hopes of a more widely accepted solution, hosting a community meeting in November, 2015, to get feedback from residents. Hundreds attended the meeting, choosing between various alternatives, from additional traffic lights at the intersection of Robinson and Hanna roads, to other choices such as widening to four lanes or simply doing nothing. The majority of votes cast by residents opted to have something done, while about 28 percent voted in favor of doing nothing.

“The residents realize that Robinson Road is a big problem,” Kuykendall said at the time, noting that the minority that want nothing done are clinging to the bedroom community of the past. “They’d like to say forever and ever it’s always going to be the same. I can’t say that,” Kuykendall said. ‘“Let’smake it go away.’ That is their answer.”

In several recent election cycles, including in 2016, 2017 and 2018, debate has swirled between incumbents and candidates about the future of the project, with Kuykendall expressing his frustrations in the May 2018 race after a challenger made misleading statements about the project.

Rudy said those claims are simply not true, adding that city leaders nixed any proposals to create a four-lane, divided roadway long ago after deciding to not pursue federal or state funding to help pay for the project.

“We have officially abandoned trying to get state and federal funds,” she said, citing higher standards for environmental review and most importantly, a desire to not negatively impact the city’s residents with too large of a project. “Federal and state officials) Wanted it to be a four-lane divided road, which is too high of an impact.”

At the moment, there is no plan for any construction on the project in the near future, Rudy said, but the project is “high on our agenda.”

“Because we don’t have funding tied down, there is no timeline for construction to begin,” Rudy added. “The bottom line is the city could not do this on its own.”

Marialuisa Rincon contributed to this article.

jeff.forward@chron.com

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