TRAVIS COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — Michael James Babineaux, 36, is remembered in his neighborhood of Sweetwater as a dad who played with his kids and was a “great guy to have around,” as neighbor Greg Short put it.
Babineaux died in a collision on State Highway 71 near the entrance to the Sweetwater Community on Oct. 29, after another driver on SH 71 lost control, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety. DPS is still investigating this incident which happened close to Serene Hills Drive.
“We all feel this was preventable,” Short said. “This was not the first time someone had died there.”
Short recalled that when SH 71 was created, it was mainly surrounded by farmland. Now, new homes, new schools and a new sports complex in the area indicate just how much it is growing.
TxDOT began widening the road in 2008, taking it from four lanes with no shoulders to five lanes with a center turn lane and wide shoulders. Construction projects are planned to widen it from the Pedernales River to the Blanco County Line and continue the expansion through Spicewood.
Several Sweetwater residents spoke with KXAN expressing similar worries. Kyle Harvey, who’s lived there for three years with his wife and two children, has watched traffic in the area worsen during that time.
“In the three years we’ve seen so many accidents ranging from, you know, areas where people are getting T-boned at intersections to severe crashes where there was obviously something bad going on,” Harvey said.
He noted that many developers nearby are expanding the number of homes available.
Harvey worries when he sees people driving faster than the speed limit down the hill past his neighborhood because he knows SH 71 is the only major road in and out of the community, and it will likely be the area where his children will first learn to drive in a decade or so.
“I think it just comes down to we want to see results. I understand there’s a lot of analysis that has happened but at the same time, there’s lives out here that need to be saved,” Harvey said.
Short and Harvey say they’ve both reached out to TxDOT and public officials with their concerns before.
Short believes it’s time for the community to come together and discuss solutions to making the road safer and to get public officials to see the immediacy of their concerns.
TxDOT said it listened to concerns from neighbors in this area over the past year and accelerated projects such as repaving the road in response.
Though some neighbors have called for concrete median barriers, TxDOT says that would only work for a few specific locations, like curves, which “prove chronically difficult to navigate.” The department added that unlike I-35, there are no access or frontage roads, which means installing a median would lead to problems like impeding left turns at access points along the roadway.
TxDOT is also currently conducting a speed study of the area to see if it should be lowered. But, TxDOT noted that what a majority of drivers are doing determines the speed limits, so if most drivers are going faster than the speed limit, it’s possible the speed limit could be adjusted upward. Until those results come in, Short has some advice.
“Just because it’s called Highway 71 doesn’t mean you need to treat it like it’s a freeway,” Short said.
He acknowledged TxDOT has done work in the past few years on that stretch of road, but he feels the work they’ve done hasn’t significantly addressed the safety issues. By his count, in the last two years, six people have died between Bee Cave and Spicewood on Highway 71.
“It’s not just one person that gets impacted when a life gets lost in a senseless car accident,” Short said. “In this instance [ Babineaux] was a doctor and there were patients who were relying on him for treatment, so beyond just his impact, and the loss we feel with him as a family member and as a neighbor, there are dozens of other peoples lives who have been impacted by this tragedy.”
Babineaux was a doctor with Baylor Scott & White Health, KXAN received the following statement from Balyor Scott &White about him:
“We are all deeply saddened by the unexpected passing of Dr. Michael Babineaux. His exceptional career at Baylor Scott & White Health began in September 2016. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family at this time.”