Austin area braces for eclipse traffic surge

No one knows exactly how bad traffic will be in Central Texas, but a total eclipse in 2017 caused historic gridlock.

By Nathan Bernier, KUT NewsMarch 6, 2024 10:15 am, , ,

From KUT News:

Some Central Texas roads could be jampacked with eclipse watchers on April 8, the first time in over a century the moon will completely block the sun in Texas.

Exactly how many people will drive to the path of totality is a shot in the dark. But if the last total solar eclipse in the U.S. is any indication, the gridlock could be historic.

“After the eclipse, everyone got into their car at the same time and there was practically an instant traffic jam on the interstate,” eclipse chaser Michael Zeiler recalls of the Aug. 21, 2017, event. His drive down I-25 from Casper, Wyo., to Northern Colorado — normally a three-hour trip — became a grueling 12-hour journey.

A Wyoming Department of Transportation spokesperson told a reporter it was the worst traffic he had ever seen in the state. Part of I-25 had a 403% increase in vehicles after the daylight returned.

This time, the traffic is coming to the Texas Hill Country. The eclipse will center over the scenic, tourist-friendly area that boasts some of the best April weather along the path of totality. Towns like Burnet, Llano and Marble Falls will experience close to the maximum 4 minutes and 28 seconds of daytime darkness.

Ernest Wright / NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio

The 2024 eclipse will have a wider path than the total eclipse in 2017 and pass over more populated areas of the country. An estimated 31.6 million people live in the path of totality this year, compared to 12 million in 2017.

“That whole area, the Texas Hill Country near the center line can expect massive visitation on eclipse day,” said Zeiler, who’s planning to watch the eclipse from Fredericksburg, because highways jut out of the city in six directions like bicycle spokes: U.S. 290, U.S. 87 and Texas 16.

“If eclipse morning presents patchy clouds, I’ve got six ways to relocate,” said Zeiler, whose visitation estimates on are being used by some Central Texas officials to plan for crowds.

His most eye-popping forecast for Central Texas? Up to 488,000 visitors could cram into Kerrville, a town of 25,000 about 100 miles west of Austin. The seat of Kerr County is on I-10, providing a direct pipeline of traffic from San Antonio and Houston.

Michael Zeiler / GreatAmericanEclipse.Com

Zeiler, a geographer, creates maps and visitation estimates for the website he co-publishes, This map shows his forecast that Kerrville could get up between 122,000 and 488,000 eclipse tourists, largely based on the city's location on I-10.

In nearby Fredericksburg, 25 miles closer to Austin than Kerrville, the city of 11,000 is bracing for 100,000 visitors or more.

“I don’t really know what to expect. I don’t know what it’s going to look like to see potentially hundreds of thousands of people here,” said Emily Kirchner, a Fredericksburg city council member who also sits on Gillespie County’s eclipse task force. “I’m looking forward to it, although very cautious and concerned.”

Back in 2017, interstate highways turned into parking lots. Delays stretched up to 13 hours, according to a Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) webinar with state governments last month. Rural roads were even worse. Some traffic jams were 70 miles long.

Wyoming Department of Transportation

Traffic on I-25 in Wyoming increased by more than 400% after the 2017 eclipse, according to the Wyoming Department of Transportation.

The FHWA said five million people traveled to see the 2017 eclipse. That’s how many they’re expecting this time, too.

“Rural areas could expect an exponential increase in population during the event,” Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) spokesperson Brad Wheelis warned in an email.

Eclipse viewers will trickle in over multiple days. But after the sun is blotted out from the sky, an immediate mass exodus could spawn a traffic apocalypse. Some states are asking people not to leave right away, adopting the mantra: “Arrive early. Stay put. Leave late.”

TxDOT is following some FHWA’s eclipse advice for traffic. Contractors working on state roads will have to limit construction activity and lane closures.

One notable exception is in Stonewall. That’s where U.S. 290 — the main road from Austin to Fredericksburg — will remain narrowed to a single lane in each direction, “which should be exciting for traffic,” Fredericksburg Council Member Bobby Watson deadpanned at a December meeting. TxDOT said a bridge project in Stonewall is under construction, so one lane in each direction must remain closed.

The state isn’t restricting oversized truck loads during the eclipse, according to the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles, which issues permits for super-sized cargo. Transportation researchers at South Carolina State University found that restricting oversized trucks was “essential” during the days before and after the 2017 eclipse.

Nebraska was among at least three states to ban oversized loads during the eclipse in 2017.

“We really kind of walked through all the different scenarios on what we thought we might be experiencing that day,” Nebraska Department of Transportation Jeni Campana recollected of the decision in 2017. “We were all singing from the same songbook.”

TxDOT will have tow truck companies on standby to clear roads in case of a crash or a car breaking down. The state’s changeable message signs will flash the following text: “NO STOPPING ON HIGHWAY TO VIEW ECLIPSE, NO PARKING ON SHOULDER, KEEP MOVING.”

Renee Dominguez / KUT News

Austin City Limits Festival attendees during the partial eclipse October 14, 2023.

One of the state’s concerns is that last-minute sky-gazers could pull their hot vehicles onto tinder, dry grass and spark a wildfire in areas firetrucks couldn’t reach because of traffic.

Hill Country officials have spent months preparing for crowds. Sidewalk barriers are ready. Portable toilets have been reserved. Many local government offices will close April 8 or employees will work remotely.

The eclipse will end around the time school lets out. Some school districts in the path of the totality — including in Marble Falls, Liberty Hill, Burnet, Llano, Fredericksburg and Dripping Springs — canceled classes for the day.

“We don’t want kids sitting on buses for hours trying to get through traffic,” said Roman Baligad, emergency management coordinator for the city of Dripping Springs.

Baligad warned people coming to the Hill Country to fill up their gas tanks or charge their cars and bring extra food and water.

“Fuel supplies may be hindered during the event,” Baligad said of the gas stations in less populated areas. “Same thing with electric vehicles. We do not have a lot of charging stations out here in the Hill Country.”

Drivers could also head north on I-35. Georgetown, for example, is expected to get more than three minutes of the total solar eclipse.

Austin is expecting “some traffic impacts,” said Jack Flagler with the city’s Transportation and Public Works Department. “Consider avoiding non-essential travel and avoiding major roadways if possible,” he wrote in an email. Street lights will turn on automatically, but it’s unclear if they’ll reach full brightness before the sun is blocked by the moon.

The city of Austin has no street closures planned for the eclipse. But city staff could adjust the timing of traffic signals like they do during major events including SXSW and the Austin City Limits Music Fest.

The Austin Police Department plans to beef up staffing in the days leading up to the eclipse, with officers receiving overtime pay if required, according to a memo from the city’s homeland security and emergency management director. Ken Snipes said the 911 call center will have more people working the weekend before the eclipse and through Monday.

The city is hosting watch parties at the Zilker Botanical Gardens, Butler Park and various libraries around town. Only one application has been submitted for a special event permit. That’s for a watch party at Waterloo Amphitheater.

Hotels in Austin are filling up fast for early April, according to CBRE, a company that provides data to hotel companies.

“There’s definitely going to be an uptick in hotel bookings for that time period,” CBRE vice president Kevin Donahue predicted, based on interviews with managers at some of the biggest downtown hotels. “A few managers said they’re expecting it to be fully booked for a day or so leading up to it and then probably a day or so after.”

Capital Metro hasn’t finalized plans for any changes to service around the eclipse. CapMetro’s 214 bus to Lago Vista is the furthest west you can go on the public transit network. The 214 comes every 40-60 minutes on weekdays.

Leander Station on the Red Line will get more than 3 minutes and 30 seconds of darkness. But CapMetro Rail doesn’t run to Leander between 9:04 a.m. and 2:20 p.m. For less totality but more frequent trains, Lakeline Station could be an option.

Capital Metro

The furthest west you can get on Capital Metro's system is the 214 bus to Lago Vista or the Red Line train to Leander. Both locations will have more than three minutes of daytime darkness.

The city’s network of bike paths offers another way to reach more eclipse time while avoiding major roads. The further west cyclists go, the more likely they are to encounter “low-comfort” routes with lots of cars and little to no bicycle accommodations.

Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (ABIA) is expecting busy days on April 8 and 9, but city management says the darkened skies won’t affect operations. The rental car return at the airport will be busier than normal after the eclipse, ABIA spokesperson Bailey Grimmett said.

Some airlines are offering flights to witness the darkening with nothing between you and the horizon. A civilian plane can’t keep up with a shadow traveling at 2,000 miles per hour, but the view from 35,000 feet can be breathtaking, as seen in this Alaska Airlines eclipse flight from 2017.

Alaska Airlines told KUT it didn’t have any eclipse flights out of Austin.

Delta’s Austin to Detroit eclipse flight sold out in 24 hours. The airline offered a second one out of Dallas. Southwest says a regularly scheduled Austin to Indianapolis flight is among eight routes expected to offer a good view of the celestial event.

But a lot of people on the ground in the Austin-area will get a good dose of daytime darkness, even if it’s not the full 4 minutes and 28 seconds.

“It’s like the Superbowl and the World Series and Christmas and Thanksgiving rolled into one for an astronomer,” Zeiler said. “It simply is the most breathtaking sight you will ever see in the sky.”

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