Pflugerville, Texas, has adopted an innovative new intersection design called the displaced left turn, or DLT, which allows vehicles to make unopposed left turns at an intersection by crossing traffic over to the other side of the road prior to the intersection, thus creating an exclusive left turn lane. Then vehicles turning left may continue through the intersection, while through traffic traveling the opposite direction flows safely at the same time. By maximizing the flow of the intersection, the DLT increases the intersection’s capacity and requires shorter traffic light cycles to reduce the time drivers spend at a red light.
While Pflugerville is not the first DLT in the country, it is, as Amy Madison, executive director of the Pflugerville Community Development Corporation, said, kind of unusual. So why create this unusual turn lane?
Madison explained. “One of the reasons was because we had recruited a 3.8 million- square-foot building to house an Amazon Fulfillment center. We knew we would have at least a thousand employees passing through every day to and from work, so it was critical to expedite as quickly as possible. We had a lot vested in the region and there is a business park contiguous to the road, so there is a significant amount of traffic.”
“By doing this, we have improved our recruitment opportunities for other businesses and manufacturers and so on,” she elaborated. “And after COVID-19, when so many had lost their jobs, this was a huge thing. We had more to offer, not just who we had already recruited, but we could also extend further to many more. And we have grown quite rapidly since 2020, the numbers not only in terms of jobs but also population. This really was critical infrastructure at a critical time.”
Any road construction project brings its own headaches, and COVID-19 did as well. Shortage supply issues added to that to some extent.
“We did have some delay related to those issues, but not significantly. All in all, it went pretty smoothly. The estimated timeline seemed good and it was, because it came in within 30 days of the proposed timing. And that was coordinated with another large project to coincide with that for a more fluid usage,” Madison said.
While there was a significant cost for the project, Madison believes the way it was financed is more interesting than any other part of the story. The Pflugerville City Council approved a $3.8 million taxpayer-funded incentive agreement to pay for road improvements, such as the DLT project.
“In 2020, as we were recruiting this large employer (at first known as Project Charm so the Amazon name wouldn’t be used), they agreed to redirect funding to the city. Our grant came from a corporation meant to incentivize the community to come to us, but we ended up funding with an Economic Development Administration (EDA) and Pflugerville Economic Development (PED) grant. I mean, this reduced our costs significantly — from $4.3 million, with the EDA paying $2.3 million and the remainder paid by the PED. There was no cost to taxpayers, no need to use bonds or CDs; it was completely funded by those two grants. What was really unique and different was that Amazon was willing to redirect their money toward us.”
Madison continued, “They were not required to make those improvements. The city was faced with improvements one way or another, and during a time of uncertain budgets thanks to COVID-19, it was a sort of ‘Can we just figure this out, because it will help with traffic flow for your employees?’”
“Did Amazon benefit? Absolutely. But again, it was not a requirement, and everyone worked together and everyone won.”
Without question, once the DLT was completed and ready
for use, there was a learning curve much like that which a roundabout requires.
“There was lots of confusion with people entering and exiting and folks were kind of lost, going in circles and not sure what to do. Going between two opposing lanes of traffic is an unusual approach, true, but once you get used to it and understand the mentality of it … So, we put up additional signage and lighting to help them navigate through, because we found it was one thing during daylight hours but much worse at night, more confusing. It’s one of the busiest intersections in our community, lots of flow-through.”
“There were more confident drivers, and there were those that were kind of lost, but it became sort of like following the leader with
the uncertain drivers following the confident ones. It’s true that there was that hesitance at first, even from those who had wanted this lane when it was proposed. And some avoided using it for a while, which made it easier for those learning to use it; but once traffic was flowing smoothly through, we heard less and less complaints. And it has definitely reduced drive time. There were times I could be sitting and waiting up to 20 minutes to get through, and now I can get there in less than 10!”
Madison is pleased with all aspects of how well the intersection has worked. “It worked for us as a community, plus then adding the company itself. Having the focus on improving the corridor was extremely important to us. It has contributed to significant growth and brought capital investment to the community as well as more employment. It’s truly a remarkable project. It’s one thing to have an interesting intersection, but quite another to see it come about as a result of all those elements, especially with the community so affected with financial difficulties because of the pandemic.”
While there hasn’t been a second DLT built in “Pfabulous Pflugerville” — a local play on words — Madison said they are looking at other ways to move traffic along more smoothly and quickly in other areas, because Austin is just down the road. Pflugerville is a suburb of Austin, part of the Austin-Round Rock-San Marcos Metropolitan area. It is definitely a project for other cities to consider where they experience slow intersections, and absolutely an alternative to widening the road and other methods. DLTs may be the kind of progress that has seen bicycle lanes and right turns on red lights become commonplace: This kind of intersection may well become just as ordinary in time, and maybe Pflugerville will be to thank for it.