The man with the answers was orange-shirted Ismael Soto, the regional director of traffic operations for the Texas Department of Transportation.
The issue was evident just outside the door, where traffic on SH 72 here maintained its constant, pavement-damaging, decibel-demanding pace between Three Rivers and Karnes City.
The focal point was a few blocks to the south: the community’s elementary school, adjacent to the highway.
Soto said construction plans in Pawnee for Highway 72 include the establishment of passing lanes, turning lanes for school buses, rumble strips, additional highway striping and school-zone flashing lights.
“We started work Feb. 25,” project manager Ralph Condra told the group. “We should be in Pawnee in about 40 days — mid-April.”
“What about school zone lights?” asked Pawnee School Principal Hank Looney, who was standing next to his superintendent, Frank Franklin.
“Yes, we can install those,” Soto said.
The flashing lights would warn motorists on SH 72 to slow down in the school zone in the morning and afternoon.
The establishment of a school zone will come as a surprise for Eagle Ford Shale Project truck drivers, long accustomed to maintaining the speed limit — or higher — when passing the school.
“But there are no plans to add any extra lights at Pawnee intersections,” Soto explained. “We have to have experienced nighttime crashes for that.”
“Could we get a traffic light where the buses turn off of SH 72 to the school?” Franklin asked. “One of our workers waited for 15 minutes the other day to turn left to the school.”
Soto said TxDOT had no plans for a turn signal at the moment, but said that, after the current project was complete, his office would conduct a study to see if the light was warranted.
“Establishing a left-turn lane will change the dynamics, as will the school-zone flashers,” Soto said. “But the numbers have to be there before we can put up a light.”
“I just don’t want a crash and then a light,” Looney stressed.
He asked whether speed limits could be lowered on the highway inside the town.
Soto grimaced. “I thought maybe I had managed to skirt that issue,” Soto said. But he did say that TxDOT could lower the speed limits in areas where construction was underway.
“How about more patrol cars?” resident Bill Allen asked.
“Well, you need to be careful about that,” Precinct 2 County Commissioner Dennis DeWitt replied. “A lot of times the first person caught speeding is the very guy who asked for the patrols to be increased.”
DeWitt then recounted his being asked if there was an extra sheriff’s deputy car that wasn’t running but which could be parked at strategic places along the highway to influence drivers to slow down.
“We have tractors,” Allen suggested. “It would be easy to move the car from one place to another.”
Granting that Highway 72 is a major route, Soto told the group to abandon any hope that it might be expanded into four lanes. “There simply isn’t the funding available,” he said, pointing out that the only reason he could promise flashing school-zone lights was because there was an unused pair in Live Oak County.
DeWitt — who organized the meeting — also had told Soto to expect questions about the area’s farm-to-market roads, such as FM 882, with its shoulders heavily damaged by truck traffic.
“Are you going to do anything about (highways) 882, 626 and 99?” Bobby DeLeon asked. “They’re bad.”
Soto’s answer was familiar. “Safety is our top priority,” he said, “but funding is an issue.”
Meaning, while TxDOT crews will continue to patch the worst spots, no major repaving work is possible on farm-to-market roads until funds are available.
Soto noted that with the number of pipelines increasing concurrently with the amount of drilling decreasing, traffic associated with the oil boom will diminish.
Allen was not convinced. “You guys are trying, but we have a great big problem here. You’ve got 100,000-pound vehicles that are going to be plying these roads for the next 20 years.
“They’ve destroyed traffic signs, even mailboxes.”
“I solved that problem,” DeLeon announced. “I bought a rubber mailbox.”
After the meeting, which DeWitt characterized as being one devoid of animosity, Soto defended TxDOT’s quick reaction to the Highway 72 problem. “Usually it takes five, maybe six years to get something such as this addressed. But for here, it took only a year. As with all projects, the biggest issue is the necessary research.”
Plans already are complete, he explains, to redo FM 882 and others.
“All we’re waiting for is the funding.”
Bill Clough is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 122, or at beepic@mySouTex.com.