Highway study aims to make travel on SH 21 better

Submitted Report

It connects some of the fasting growing communities in all of Texas, and now SH 21 – on the eastern border of Hays County – is being studied to make it easier, and safer, to travel.

The state highway, also known as Camino Real, because it follows roughly along the old Spanish “King’s Road,” will undergo a long-range “corridor preservation study,” thanks to the Hays County Commissioners Court and Commissioners Debbie Gonzales Ingalsbe and Mark Jones, who are co-sponsoring the effort.

“This is Hays County living up to a long-term commitment,” said Ingalsbe, the county commission’s senior member. Her district, Precinct 1, stretches from the south and east sides of San Marcos through Uhland and the east side of Kyle, along the Hays-Caldwell county line, with SH 21 as the boundary.

“We’ve made a number of improvements to SH 21 over the years. Now we’re looking at the long-term and the big picture: how do we plan this road to meet the demands of the future and the growth we know is likely to keep coming,” Ingalsbe said.

Jones agreed. “We’re one of the state’s fastest growing counties,” said Jones, whose Precinct 2 includes Niederwald, Buda, and parts of Kyle. “We’re seeing very rapid growth along SH 21, and even more growth planned. In addition, SH 21 is a major route for car and truck traffic passing through our region. We have to think ahead to make this road safe and to keep traffic moving.”

The study will focus on one of the critical sections of the road, an approximately 17-mile stretch of the highway between its intersection with SH 80 in San Marcos and the Hays County line near U.S. 183 at the Travis County line, close to the village of Niederwald. Hays County is cooperating with TxDOT and other local governments on the project.

The goal is to develop a detailed, long-term plan to upgrade the highway through Hays County, possibly in several phases, over the coming decades. Engineers will analyze traffic and population projections, environmental constraints, existing buildings, historic sites, business and school bus patterns, and a range of other issues in developing design recommendations for future travel lanes and intersection, sidewalk and shoulder improvements.

Hays County plans to use the study to preserve the right-of-way along the road that will be needed in the future to implement the plan. 

School districts and emergency responders are among those glad for the study. SH 21 has been the scene of repeated fatal collisions in recent years.

TxDOT crash data by county indicate at least 37 fatalities on the road within the study area over the three years from 2016 through 2018 (current year data is not yet available).

Among them, in 2016 a Lehman High School student was killed by a passing pickup truck, and a San Marcos woman was seriously injured and lost both her unborn child and her husband in a head-on collision. In 2018, a volunteer firefighter was killed on his way to work. There have been serious collisions on the San Marcos portion of the road as well.

Those are just a few examples. “Every one of those affects a whole family, a whole community of people,” Ingalsbe said.

“It’s not just fatalities,” Jones said. “We’ve also had a lot of injuries on SH 21, and there can be delays, congestion and flooding problems at certain choke points and intersections.”

Justice of the Peace Beth Smith, who like other justices of the peace can be called to the scene of crashes to verify death, has seen the worst. She calls the road “one of the most dangerous roads in Hays County for head-on collisions … Personally, I avoid that road as much as possible because I’ve seen some of the worst fatalities there as anywhere in my precinct. One collision that killed a young family of three, the child being a four-year old traveling home from a Christmas trip, has haunted my mind for eight years. They’re all tragic, but some are even harder to leave behind than others.”

On the San Marcos side, SH 21 runs past the San Marcos airport and Gary Job Corps before it intersects with another regional arterial, SH 80.

As the road moves northeast through Uhland and Niederwald, it moves into the Hays Consolidated Independent School District.

“It’s the land that’s available and affordable,” said the school district’s chief communications officer, Tim Savoy. “Developers are looking all along there. We expect the growth to be there.”

Savoy said the district – one of the region’s fastest growing school districts – is keenly aware of both the growth happening in what was once quiet farming communities and the dangers of SH 21.

“We would welcome any improvements on Highway 21,” Savoy said, noting that the district only recently opened a new elementary school in Uhland, and has other relatively new elementary and middle schools along the SH 21 corridor. The district also has a bus facility with frontage on SH 21 but uses a different road for access, in part because of safety concerns.

So many new subdivisions are springing up in the area that Savoy says the district’s long-range plan is likely for its next high school to be located along the corridor.

Local residents will have a number of opportunities to learn more about the county’s SH 21 project, how it might affect them, and to provide suggestions or comments. The county is planning public meetings this spring and will launch a website, as well as hold stakeholder meetings with cities, school districts and other organizations and landowners who might be directly affected.

The study is funded by bond money approved by Hays County voters in November 2016. Since then, county officials have been addressing short-term needs and putting into place the pieces to launch this long-range study. A selection committee recently recommended HDR Engineering to lead the long-term analysis.

Final approval to conduct the engineering study and formal project kickoff was approved by a formal vote of the full Commissioners Court Tuesday.

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