City and TxDOT nix roundabout plans for intersection in front of courthouse

MARFA — The intersection of Highland Avenue and Lincoln Street in front of the courthouse will receive an update this spring, with Marfa City Council rejecting a roundabout plan and giving a vote of support to the “Alternative 2” plan that would install stop signs at the three-way stop, among other new additions.

Changes to the intersection were proposed in response to safety concerns at the three-way intersection, which saw a higher incidence of crashes over a three-year period, including a few incapacitating injuries, though no deaths. The dangers prompted the Texas Department of Transportation to study ways to improve that traffic situation.

At present, the intersection allows northbound traffic on Highland Avenue to have the right of way, while westbound traffic on Lincoln Street must yield and eastbound traffic on Lincoln must come to a full stop.

In practice, “I see more near misses than I’m comfortable with,” said Judge David Beebe, the Presidio County justice of the peace of Precinct 1 whose office at the courthouse looks out to the intersection. Beebe gave his opinion at city council last week at a special meeting to discuss the intersection. “I just want to advocate for the three-way stop sign,” he said.

Even during the meeting, Marfa Mayor Manny Baeza said he had a confusing encounter with another vehicle at the intersection earlier that day. “Just today I was going eastbound and the vehicle in front of me took off before the yield sign,” he told council and TxDOT.

In early spring of this year, workers began surveying the intersection in front of the Presidio County Courthouse on behalf of TxDOT for a safety improvement project. The surveying gave way to design plans, with a top contender being the addition of a roundabout in front of the courthouse, which would allow traffic to flow continuously in all directions and essentially eliminate the opportunity for car accidents to be “t-bones.”

But the proposal did not find much support around town. “I was definitely against the roundabout – I think they take some getting used to,” said Kate Calder, the owner of Communitie, a retail business that sits on the block of Highland Avenue near the intersection. And while locals might eventually come around to the concept, she said, “I feel like with as many people from out of town as we have, it would be a disaster waiting to happen.”

On top of that, semi trucks carrying prefabricated houses and equipment go through the intersection frequently, Calder pointed out. TxDOT in the special meeting this week acknowledged the same issue.

“It would be difficult for these trucks (including fire trucks) to maneuver around the roundabout,” said Chris Weber, the TxDOT El Paso District Alpine Area engineer, who gave the presentation at the city meeting. While the roundabout option would be designed to be “traversable” or able to be run over, Weber said, “The daily crossing of these trucks over the central island would deteriorate it and would require frequent maintenance.”

Along with those concerns, Weber pointed to conversations with Mayor Baeza that led his team to conclude the three-way stop might be the better option to improve safety at the intersection, as it would introduce less driver uncertainty than the roundabout option. “The last thing we want to do is incite an equal or greater confusion,” Weber told the council.

In their return to the drawing board, TxDOT considered a wide variety of inputs to create the “Alternative 2” plan, weighing comments made during the US 67 corridor master plan study last year, comments about parking concerns from adjacent property owners and concerns regarding public learning curves for a roundabout and about the fire station having easy access.

Additionally, the state agency hoped to add pedestrian usability without compromising existing landscaping and the historical features of the courthouse.

The Alternative 2 adds a wide variety of features to the intersection. Striped crosswalks would be added and lead pedestrians to ADA compliant ramps. “Bulb-outs” would be introduced, which are additional protrusions from the sidewalk that provide a few benefits: pedestrians would have a shorter distance to travel when crossing traffic on the wide streets of Marfa.

Pedestrians would also be able to get out ahead of parked cars while still standing on the corner, which improves sight lines for cars to see pedestrians. The stop sign posts would be placed on these bulb outs, bringing signage closer to the driver’s line of sight –– currently, the stop sign at the intersection can be obscured by overgrown trees or large vehicles parked in front of it.

Parking would be eliminated in front of the “gateway” into the courthouse, since backing into an intersection is dangerous, but other parking in front of the courthouse would receive new striping. Currently, drivers park both straight and angled, which decreases available parking space.

Weber also said the plan would take off the top 2 inches of pavement that is there and replace it with a durable hot mix and upgrade the striping.

Finally, the mayor has requested dark-sky compliant lighting be added at the intersection, so that during dark hours, pedestrians could see the curbs and drivers could see pedestrians.

“Thank y’all so much for listening to what everybody had to say with our dislike of the roundabout,” City Attorney Teresa Todd told TxDOT officials in attendance. “Alternative number two looks like it will do a lot of good and won’t disturb the historical entrance to the courthouse.”

Councilmember Irma Salgado endorsed Alternative 2, telling Weber she liked it just as presented. While Councilmember Buck Johnston felt hesitance about causing cars to stack up at the Highland Avenue stop sign and wanted more community input, the city moved forward on a vote, approving it unanimously, with Councilmember Yoseff Ben-Yehuda absent.

“I’m all for striping, visibility and ramps for wheelchairs,” Calder said of the newly selected plan, hoping it would get done quickly. The business owner was concerned that construction might inhibit foot traffic around Highland businesses during the usually lucrative spring break season, but hoped local stores could “get past COVID, get past this and come out on the other side.”

While the project is funded through the Highway Safety Improvement Program for $120,000, any money not used will return to a pool of funds to be used elsewhere in the community. According to TxDOT, the Alternative 2 plan that was selected is estimated to cost $47,141.00 to implement, and the project is scheduled to “let” in February 2021, after environmental documents are updated to reflect Alternative 2 plans and after TxDOT coordinates with the Presidio County Historical Commission.

The earliest start of construction would be in mid-March 2021, according to Weber who said the project is expected to take approximately two months to complete.