It seems that even in the quieter time of late summer, when the City budget is complete and the grass and weeds do not need as much mowing, when the families and children start getting ready to go back to school, and when the heat is a little less intense and we can all spend at least the mornings outside again, there is always another issue that jumps up and raises additional concerns. After the serious accident a couple of weeks ago involving the overturned propane truck on the square, there has been considerable concern in the public about addressing the speed zones and the traffic warning signs throughout town. We at the City have been in conversation with the County Judge, TxDOT engineers and others concerning this issue and I am finding all kinds of information regarding the situation, not all of it clear cut. I anticipate the process to possibly reduce speed limits and enforce reasonable and prudent speed zones will take several months of discussion and consideration, but I want our citizens to know some of the issues I have encountered.
The first step in understanding speed zones on state roadways is to review the Texas Transportation Code, and specifically Section 545 which sets out the regulations and state law on all of the complex factors regarding speeds. This involves many pages of legal definitions and jargon, and much of this section of the Transportation Code does not apply to our situation here in rural Texas; but there are some parts that are very specifically important to us. I have also read the Texas Department of Transportation manual on Procedures for Establishing Speed Zones, all 90 pages, and can assure you that this is much more challenging than just proclaiming all roads should be at a standard speed limit and not being able to justify why or how that decision was reached. This will certainly be a complex issue and will require several steps before action can be taken by the City Commission, but the first meetings and information gathering have been set in motion.
I was led to believe in the past that the State set speed limits on their highways based on engineering and traffic studies, and this is one of the first steps, but very certainly not the entire story. The most recent traffic study in Mason was completed in 2003, so one of the first things that has been done is request an update with current information based on actual measurements of traffic and speeds of travel at several individual points on the highways through town. The methodology is based on previous studies, and I am unsure that it is intuitively wise, but the study revolves around clocking the actual speeds driven by at least 125 vehicles at one specific point during a weekday off-peak traffic time. The next step is to consider a reasonably prudent speed limit based on the actual speed traveled by motorists, and then the engineers recommend a speed limit for specific sections of roadway. Beyond this is where we can have some particular input on the process, and after some research I have some concerns about the ways this has been handled in the past.
The Transportation Code, as opposed to what I was led to understand in the past, says that “the governing body of a municipality, for a highway or part of a highway in the municipality, including a highway of the state highway system, has the same authority to alter by ordinance prima facie speed limits from the results of an engineering and traffic investigation….” I have discovered that in Mason, the 2003 traffic study only identified limited points in one section of town to base all speed recommendations on, and the Speed Zone manual sets out that the recommended speed should be the 85th percentile of these measured speeds. That is what the engineering studies show, but again I am not sure that this is common sense that we can agree on. I also had the City Secretary look back at the City records and determined that the speeds on Hwy 87 and FM 1871 and FM 386 were set individually by different City ordinances in 1969, 1986 and 1994, but have not been reconsidered since then. I had not been informed and did not even realize that we could look into this and perhaps change decisions made in a very different time with different concerns, but that is a decision that the City Commission can make.
There are a number of factors in setting speed limits, and I am just beginning to gain an understanding of this issue, but I can assure our citizens that I will continue to work through this problem until we reach a decision that will be in the best interests of our community. This has not addressed yet the concerns of pedestrians “dodging traffic” to cross the roadways around our square (as I do several times a day), or the need for recommendations for traffic signs to call attention to the corners and blind spots on our state highways. I am also going to be questioning the speed zones in the “residential” areas of Live Oak St (FM 386) and El Paso St (FM 1871) where we have higher housing density and regular truck traffic with speed limits that are considered too high by most adjacent homeowners. As I have tried to show in just a few paragraphs, this is a broad issue that will require time and some patience to come to a reasonable compromise and decision. I will try to keep you informed, and the City Commission will probably hold a public hearing on this issue in the next couple of months, but if you have a concern or a suggestion for this problem, please contact me at my city email of firstname.lastname@example.org or stop me around town to let me know, or contact your City Commissioner with your thoughts.
Mason is a great community, and working together on this and the other problems we face will make this the BEST and SAFEST hometown in Central Texas.
Your friend and neighbor, Brent Hinckley