‘Safer 71’ pushing to make improvements on SH 71 after traffic death

Travis County

TRAVIS COUNTY (KXAN) — The nonprofit “Safer 71” issued an update on Wednesday, letting the community know they’ve made progress in getting the attention of public entities and officials to make SH 71 safer in western Travis County.

Specifically, this group is calling for more enforcement, engineering improvements on the roadway, and driver education on the stretch of 71 which runs from Southwest Parkway to the Blanco County line. 

This group came together following the death of 36-year-old Michael James Babineaux on October 29. According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, Babineaux was driving near the entrance to the Sweetwater Community when the driver of a pickup went into the center lane, lost control and crashed into Babineaux.

“Once we lost Dr. Babineaux, who was a close personal friend of many of us in our neighborhood,  we had to step up and do more,” President for Safer 71 Greg Short explained.

Short’s group has spent the past few months meeting with just about every elected official and law enforcement agency with local influence on the highway. In the months to come, they plan to have more community meetings with the neighborhoods along that stretch of highway.

“We hope that while we continue to advocate on engineering and enforcement solutions, people really do take that extra moment when they get behind the wheel to think about how their actions can preserve lives on our roads,” Short said. 

One of the people Short and his team met with was Travis County Precinct 3 Constable, Stacy Suits. 

Suits has lived in the Austin area since the 1970s and remembers when 71 marked “the end of civilization.”

“It’s gone from being a rural highway to an urban-suburban highway,” Suits said. 

He actually was one of the law enforcement officers who responded to the crash which killed Babineaux. 

“That was kind of a snapping point for me,” Suits said. 

Since listening to the concerns from Safer 71, Suits has added one officer who patrols 71 from his department. In the budget for next year, he has requested to have six officers patrolling that roadway. But even if those officers were approved, they wouldn’t be instated until 2020. 

“I don’t care which office the traffic units are put in, but we need 6 deputies –a sergeant and 5 deputies on Highway 71 during the day,” Suits said. 

The Safer 71 group has also been in touch with the cities of Lakeway and Bee Cave about their concerns as well as the Travis County Sheriff’s Office, the Texas Department of Transportation and DPS.

The Travis County Sheriff’s Office has run several initiatives in the area to catch traffic violators since the crash with Babineaux happened.

TCSO Captain Willie Taylor explained that from November 1 through November 14, the entire TCSO traffic unit and the TCSO motor unit patrolled highway 71 for two weeks straight, making traffic stops. While this initiative was a success, TCSO can’t afford to have all of their traffic unit in one location like that permanently. 

“Do I think it would be beneficial ongoing to have people out there on an ongoing basis? Yes,” he said, noting that there are proposals to expand the TCSO traffic unit in the upcoming budget. 

Captain Taylor added that already TCSO officers are patrolling 71 “all the time.” 

TCSO and TxDOT have also collaborated to bring in signs since November telling drivers to slow down along 71 in western Travis County. 

On Friday, TxDOT will lower the speed limit to 55 miles per hour from Bee Cave City limits to the Pedernales River on 71. The current speed limit there 60 miles per hour. 

TxDOT added that  $13 million dollar construction project has been funded and a design is in the works to widen 71 to a five-lane roadway from the Pedernales River to the Blanco County Line.

Additionally, TxDOT says a $10 million dollar construction project is funded to continue the expansion through Spicewood.

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.

TxDOT told KXAN back in November, 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 on 71, which means installing a median would lead to problems like impeding left turns at access points along the roadway. 

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