Tag Archives: Austin transportation

Are You Ready For Only Two Car Lanes On South Lamar?

Follow on Twitter – @AAffordability

By Bill Oakey – November 19, 2017

Update: I have been advised by a top City official that the elements described in the City report cited here are recommendations, rather than a final plan. However, the recommendations may carry a significant amount of weight. It will be up to folks in the community to stay actively engaged. We have an important opportunity to discuss our feelings about the recommendations and to let our voices be heard.

Unless people organize and speak out really fast, we will end up with ONLY ONE CAR LANE IN EACH DIRECTION ON SOUTH LAMAR, from Riverside Dr. to Ben White. This is one of the City’s corridor plans, to be funded by the 2016 mobility bonds approved by voters. These plans were originally based on the assumption that Austin would get a citywide rail system, which now would probably cost at least $15-$20 billion.

The South Lamar Plan includes:

– A loss of 3.3 miles of travel lanes.

– One bike lane in each direction.

– One BUS-ONLY lane in each direction. The official project report states that these lanes would be transit-only “during peak hours, when supported by ridership (See Page 6-17 of the report). Capital Metro just eliminated 13 bus routes. So, good luck taking the bus to work.

– Not one, not two, but THREE medians in some places, with pretty trees (taxpayer cost to maintain the trees not disclosed).

– The medians will replace the continuous turn lanes and will CUT OFF ACCESS TO BUSINESSES!

– The number of medians varies on different stretches of the road.

– Most intersections will have separate turn lanes.

– Oh, and one last “improvement” – ONE LANE IN EACH DIRECTION LEFT FOR CARS! (Except during peak hours – maybe).

And you thought you voted for those mobility bonds to relieve traffic congestion?

If you want to avoid total gridlock, perhaps you could quit your job and drive on S. Lamar during the middle of the day. Hey, Lamar is the busiest non-highway, north-south roadway in the City. It is simply NOT WIDE ENOUGH to give up traffic lanes. In addition:

1. South Lamar can barely handle the traffic it has now!

2. Rapid-speed buses may help some, but future growth will obviously create increased congestion. If a dam were about to burst, would you spend millions of dollars to REDUCE the structural supports on that dam?

3. The idea that most of the throngs of new people moving here won’t be using cars is either:
a. Poppycock b. Horsefeathers or, for our British friends, c. Tommyrot.

But Wait – There’s a Study That Explains Everything…

A university study, cited below this section, offers a somewhat comical response to business concerns over the raised medians. My favorite quote: “The typical business may be able to overcome some reduction of access if it offers good, reliable service.” Hmm! Clearly, such a massive road overhaul would demand good coordination between City officials and concerned businesses.

Homeowners have the option of surrendering their houses to the bulldozers and moving into a new high-rise on South Lamar. Right next to the traffic noise. The rent will cost two or three times your mortgage. But you will be able to walk, skateboard or bike your way up to the hoity-toity shops that sell designer ice cream for $15 a scoop and $1,500 women’s handbags.

To learn more about all of the City’s corridor bond projects, sign up for newsletters, or to provide feedback, click here. To read the official recommendations for South Lamar, click here. Below is an Austin American-Statesman summary of all the corridor plans. It shows that 15 lane-miles will be eliminated.

Austin Bond Plan Includes Both More and Fewer Car Lanes
By Ben Wear, Austin American-Statesman, Saturday, October 01, 2016

Paul Counter has heard what the city has in mind for South Lamar Boulevard, about how the center “chicken lane” his customers use to get into and out of Matt’s El Rancho’s parking lot would be replaced with a raised median that would cut off left turns. He’s not happy about it.

“I’m confused as to how taking out the center turn lane is a good thing,” said Counter, the restaurant’s general manager. “It’s really frustrating when you’re trying to operate a business and this sort of stuff is going on.”

If the city of Austin’s $720 million transportation bond passes Nov. 8, that sort of stuff, and a lot of other changes to major Austin roads, would go on over the next six to eight years. At least 14 miles of travel lanes would be added in various places, while roughly 15 lane-miles would be lost to through traffic in other spots, mostly to make way for buses.

Another 20 lane-miles of continuous center turn lanes — like the one on South Lamar — would be replaced with center medians that would limit where traffic can turn. The city and its engineers see this change as a beneficial trade-off, speeding traffic and cutting accidents even as it reduces access to businesses along the road.

Mayor Steve Adler, whose staff shepherded the bond proposal through a gantlet of community groups and then the City Council, said the proposed “smart corridor” changes, even with the lost lanes, would improve traffic congestion and safety.

In at least one case, East Riverside Drive, Adler said the proposed elimination of two lanes to make way for bus-only lanes would be subject to review to make sure that it reduces traffic congestion rather than exacerbates it.

“There is a choice and a trade-off with all things that government does,” Adler said last week in an interview with the American-Statesman. “Sometimes, there’s a prioritization that has to be made between congestion relief and the wishes of some businesses along the road.”

What goes where

The bond proposal has three major elements: a $482 million piece that would provide money for overhauls of major roads like South Lamar; $137 million for bike, sidewalk, trail, safety and repair projects on streets throughout the city; and $101 million for expansions of several highways and major roads in West and Northwest Austin.

That last piece would actually add length to the local road system, perhaps as much as 15 lane-miles on Parmer Lane, Spicewood Springs Road, RM 620 and RM 2222.

Those projects include construction of a short bypass road from RM 620 to RM 2222 to the east, along with added lanes on both roads. Engineers believe this project could significantly reduce a miles-long morning backup for commuters and those headed to Vandegrift High School.

On the other side of the coin, the corridor program would dedicate some travel lanes to buses and replace the continuous center turn lanes with those limited-access medians. Adler argues the turn lane changes would allow traffic to flow faster, smoother and with fewer fender-benders, as people getting in and out of the center turn lanes cause constant minor slowdowns that add up to significant congestion.

Findings on delays, safety

A 1997 University of Nebraska study, commissioned by the federal Transportation Research Board, provides some backup to the mayor’s assertions, at least on safety.

The researchers compared the traffic and safety conditions of four-lane roads, five-lane roads with a two-way turn lane and four-lane roads with center medians. The undivided four-lane roads, with people backing up traffic in the inner lane to make lefts, were both much slower and more dangerous than the other alternatives.

But between the two choices at play in the bond proposition — a road with a center turn lane or with a median — the two designs “yield similar delays,” the 143-page study says. The raised medians, however, have “slightly higher delays” in areas with heavy traffic volumes or an unusual volume of left-turns.

Those delays can become significant if the left turn bays cut into that median are not sufficiently long to allow turners to queue up, University of Texas transportation professor Randy Machemehl told the Statesman. If the bays are too short, he said, “it takes a lane out of service.”

The study also said streets with the medians “appear to be associated with fewer accidents” than those with center turn lanes, particularly when traffic volume tops 20,000 vehicles a day. All four of the affected Austin corridors are well above that traffic level, according to 2014 counts. The study acknowledges adding raised medians can hurt businesses, but it said “the typical business may be able to overcome some reduction of access if it offers good, reliable service.”

Inconvenient but beneficial

Roger Falk with the Travis County Taxpayers Union, which opposes the bond proposition, called it “a heartless plan with regard to those businesses” along the corridors. People will need to make U-turns to reach restaurants and stores on the opposite side of the road, he said, either increasing traffic use or discouraging people from visiting the businesses.

But Ward Tisdale, president of the Real Estate Council of Austin, one of several business groups to endorse the bond proposition, said updating city arterials, including with added bike lanes and wider sidewalks, will encourage dense development in the central city. The city needs the housing and the property taxes growing from the development, he said.

“On the whole, it’s going to be beneficial in getting people from point A to point B in Austin, and it is long overdue,” Tisdale said. “We’ve got to take the blinders off. People move to Austin, Texas. They always have. So we have to plan for them this time, and stop pretending this city isn’t changing.”

But that change will take a toll for some, including during the inevitably disruptive construction phase. Counter, with Matt’s El Rancho, said the iconic Tex-Mex restaurant would be able to weather the change. “It’ll be inconvenient for our guests, but I don’t think it’s going to hurt us that much because people are willing to wait an hour for a table,” he said. “People will find a way to get here. But I feel bad for some of the mom-and-pop businesses.”

CHANGING LANES

The road proposals in Austin’s $720 million bond would in some cases replace traffic lanes with bus-only lanes, parking or bikeways. In several of the “smart corridor” plans, continuous center turn lanes would be replaced with raised, vegetated medians. The bond proposals also include lane additions in a few cases.

Lost travel lanes (approximately 15 lane-miles)

East Riverside Drive (I-35 to Texas 71, 3 miles): One travel lane each way replaced by bus-only lanes.

South Lamar Boulevard (Riverside Drive to Ben White Boulevard, 3.3 miles): One lane in each direction becomes bus-only during rush hours.

Guadalupe Street (MLK Jr. Boulevard to West 29th Street, 1 mile): One lane each direction replaced by bus-only lanes.

Lost center turn lanes, replaced by medians (approximately 20 lane miles)

South Lamar Boulevard (3.3 miles)

North Lamar Boulevard (U.S. 183 to Parmer Lane, 5 miles)

Airport Boulevard (Lamar Boulevard to U.S 183, 6.5 miles)

Burnet Road (Koenig Lane to MoPac Boulevard, 5 miles)

Added lanes (at least 14 lane-miles)

Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (U.S. 183 to east of Decker Lane, 2 miles): One added lane each direction.

Parmer Lane (Texas 45 North tollway to RM 1431, 3 miles): Added third lane in each direction.

RM 620 to RM 2222 bypass (half-mile): A new four-lane road from RM 620 to RM 2222, plus added northbound lane on RM 620 from Steiner Ranch Boulevard to the bypass, and an added eastbound lane on RM 2222 from the bypass to McNeil Road.

Spicewood Springs Road (west of Mesa Drive to Loop 360, ¾ of a mile): Added lane in each direction.

Loop 360 and Westlake Drive: Build overpass and associated frontage roads.

Source: City of Austin

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Piece:

  1. “Traffic Jam” – James Taylor
  2. “Another Day of Sun” – From “La La Land”
  3. “Summer In the City” – The Lovin’ Spoonful
  4. “The Road Goes On Forever” – The Highwaymen
  5. “Road Hog” – John D. Loudermilk
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A New Transportation Vision for Austin

By Bill Oakey, May 4, 2017

Close your eyes and picture yourself driving to work on a crowded Austin roadway. Think about all of the cars that you see around you and every one that goes by.  Then ask yourself one simple question. How many people do you see in each one of those cars?  The answer is just as simple…

ONE!

So, the key to solving Austin’s traffic dilemma is to finally find a way to get more people into fewer vehicles on the daily commute to and from their workplace.  Capital Metro is our only current mass transit provider. Unfortunately, their model is a very outdated and severely limited centralized bus system. Their new 2025 plan is all about continuing this model, and even making mass transit more limited for the people who don’t live near a centralized corridor.

This old-fashioned model works well in a small compact city, with nearly all neighborhoods located close to the center of the city. But Austin has long since outgrown that model with untold numbers of residents living well beyond the narrow boundaries served by Capital Metro. To make matters worse, their consultant-inspired 2025 plan actually eliminates many popular routes used by people who live less than a couple of miles from downtown. One of the bus routes slated for elimination is the #21/22 Exposition bus that serves Tarrytown. The entire neighborhood is in an uproar. We are at the mercy of the Capital Metro board, who probably never even ride their own buses.

So, What Is a Better Solution for Commuter Transit?

My proposal would probably require a big push from both the City of Austin and Travis County to get Capital Metro to implement a new decentralized model that would serve neighborhoods without any current bus routes. The plan calls for a variety of vehicle types to be dispatched to neighborhoods throughout the City and County every weekday. Here are the elements of the proposal:

  1.  Capital Metro should solicit input from medium to large-scale Austin employers to determine which of their workers would like to use the service, and what their addresses are. Then, routes would be determined throughout the greater Austin area, based on where people live and where they work.
  2. Vehicles of different sizes, ranging from cars to vans to buses, would be dispatched to take the commuters to and from work every day.
  3. A team of planners could work out the details on how to set up this new system. Employers could help with some of the cost of the service. And the rates for the passengers could be determined as well.
  4. Capital Metro could still operate a Central City bus system. But pouring every dollar of their available money into expanding that model would only help a small percentage of the people who need mass transit.

Some may ask, what about the light rail option? Realistically, it is probably too late for Austin to build a major rail system. The first $1 billion leg that failed in the 2014 bond election would have doubled our general obligation debt. Taxpayers are not likely to support the $12 billion to $15 or $20 billion cost of a citywide rail system. We missed our chance, unfortunately. It might have been possible if we had started it before 2000.

The sort of comprehensive approach that I suggest would make a major dent in the number of cars on the roads every day during morning evening rush periods. To play devil’s advocate, someone might ask how Capital Metro could employ drivers who only have two pickups per day on these routes. The answer to that question is simple. We live in an age of transportation networking. The large pool of TNC drivers could participate in this new system. They would have to be allowed to drive for this new service, in addition to their work with the TNC’s.

Of course, a system such as this would be a sea change for Capital Metro. It would totally disrupt their current plans and their projected annual budgets. But I strongly believe that we need an innovative approach to solving our transportation problems. We can’t build roads fast enough to accommodate all of the people. And the prevailing push for more and more toll roads is becoming ridiculously expensive, even to think about, much less for anybody to pay for. We have a broken system that needs public support for real improvement. If it turns out that Capital Metro cannot be convinced to embrace the type of change that is needed, then perhaps they should be dissolved, and a new transportation entity should be created to take their place. An early 1900’s model simply will not serve the needs of a growing 21st century city like Austin.

 

Will Capital Metro Ever Improve Their Bus Service?

By Bill Oakey – July 12, 2016

Almost on a daily basis, I get pieces of mail intended for car drivers – special offers on auto insurance, credit union offers for low-cost car loans, even actual ignition keys. I’m supposed to take the ignition key to a car dealership to enter a contest. If I put the key in and the car starts up, it’s mine to keep and I can drive it off the lot. Now, that would make an interesting video advertisement for sure – me crashing a brand new car!

So, here’s the bottom line folks. Not everybody can drive a car, because of a wide variety of disabilities. Some people cannot afford their own car. And others have aged beyond the point where it is safe for them to drive. Some prefer to take the bus to work even if they do own a car. For all of those reasons, we need a good bus system that serves our entire community. But Capital Metro has actually gone backwards instead of forward in the direction of an adequate system.

A Mobility Adventure With An Affordability Twist

A couple of months ago, I stopped into a local business to take care of an errand. I had taken the bus to the doctor for a physical exam. That meant I was pretty darned hungry for a late breakfast, since you have to fast before such an exam. I asked the person behind the counter where the nearest breakfast restaurant was. They suggested Dan’s Hamburgers. “It’s right close by, just north of here on this side of Lamar,” I was told.

So, I walked about two blocks east to 4800 North Lamar. I turned left and headed up the sidewalk. I got to end of the first block and assumed that Dan’s Hamburgers was probably in the next block, or perhaps the one after that. But I was in for a rude surprise. It turned about to be a very long hike. I asked several people how close it was, and they just kept telling me to keep going.

By this time I had already figured out what the problem was. The guy who told me that Dan’s Hamburgers was “right close by” must have assumed that I would get into a car and quickly zip over there. The long, eight-block hike would have taken less than five minutes in a car. During the entire walk, two happy thoughts kept running through my mind. One, I believed that the breakfast would be well worth waiting for. And two, it was comforting to know that the #1 North Lamar bus runs every 11-12 minutes. At least I would have a short wait as soon as I finished breakfast.

OK, Breakfast Is Done. Now I’m Sitting At the Nearest Bus Stop

As it turns out, I had not ridden the North Lamar bus in the last couple of years. After several minutes went by, reality began to set in. Even before I looked up the schedule, I remembered something bad. North Lamar and Burnet Road are the two busiest routes in the Capital Metro system. In 2014, they thought they had created a wonderful solution by putting in those gigantic, double-sized buses – MetroRapid they are called. They have accordions on them to help navigate turns.

Those giant buses are exactly twice as expensive to ride as the regular ones. And they are “express buses,” which means that they will get you across town faster because they make much fewer stops. But here’s the bad news for the huge number of regular bus riders. When the giant buses went into service, Capital Metro more than doubled the waiting time for the regular buses. And besides that, there may not be a “giant bus stop” anywhere near where you happen to be when you need a bus.

That convenient, every-11-to-12-minute service up and down North Lamar to Guadalupe, past  U.T. into downtown that we enjoyed for 25 or 30 years no longer exists. It has been stretched into 26 minutes. So, if you throw in Murphy’s law, the last bus at my stop probably came about 14 seconds before I walked out of Dan’s Hamburgers. I was in for quite a long wait. Imagine trying to endure that in July, with blistering 100-degree heat and stifling humidity.

The Man With the Bright Red Book In His Lap

I didn’t have to wait long for some human companionship. A quiet, neatly dressed guy pulling a small overnight suitcase on rollers plopped down on the seat next to me. At first, I didn’t say anything to him. I couldn’t help but notice the bright red book in his lap. I could read the title quite clearly. Then I looked at my watch. The vast majority of those 26 minutes were still out there to be counted. So, I figured I might as well take a chance and start a conversation.

“Is that a Holy Bible?” I asked, even though I already knew the answer.

“Why, yes, it certainly is!” the guy responded, as his face lit up with eager anticipation.

There was something about him that made me think he was not going to pound me into submission if I did not succumb to everything he had to offer. He appeared to be a calm and gentle soul, and Indeed he was. He briefly explained that he had learned all of life’s bitter lessons. He would never use drugs or alcohol again. And above all, he was certainly never going back to prison. When the bus finally came, I was grateful for the time-passing conversation.

Will Austin’s “Year of Mobility” Include Expansion and Improvements to Capital Metro’s Bus Service?

Ever since the defeat of the wildly expensive “urban rail” bonds in 2014, I have been waiting for an announcement about improved bus service. Jeff Travillion, the winner of the Democratic primary for Travis County Commissioner, campaigned on that issue. Many neighborhoods in both northeast and southeast Travis County have no bus service at all, not even with 26 minute wait times. And just for the record, there are other busy routes inside the city that have longer waits than 26 minutes. The regular, non-accordion #3 Burnet/Manchaca bus runs in 30-35 minute intervals on weekdays.

How Does Capital Metro’s Official “2020 Plan” Line Up With What They Actually Did to the Bus Service?

In the case of the busy #1 North Lamar Route, the official “Capital Metro 2020 Plan,” published in January 2010, contained a promise that they clearly failed to keep. In Chapter 5, “Service Recommendations,” Page 5-14, you will find these statements:

“Frequency on Route 1 should be improved to account for the deletion of service on Route 1L. Route 1 should be classified as a future ‘Frequent Service’ Route. Route 101 will be converted to a MetroRapid Bus Rapid Transit line. The alignment of the MetroRapid line is identical to the alignment of Route 101, although the number of stops will be reduced.”

The situation only got worse after the official plan was published. Instead of improving the service on Route !, they did the exact opposite. Over the next two years, the passengers complained. On January 31, 2014, KUT reported on it in a news story entitled, “Is Capital Metro’s New MetroRapid Service Leaving Bus Riders Behind?” When questioned about the longer wait times and the frustrated passengers, Roberto Gonzalez, Capital Metro’s Manager of Service Planning made another hollow promise: “As for adding back additional Route 1 service, if there’s something that we need to address more permanently, then that’s what we’ll end up doing,” he says. “But it is very early.”

Well, here we are another two years out and the service is still pretty pitiful. I have to wonder how many other major cities would tolerate 25-35 minute wait times on the two busiest bus routes in their systems.

A New “Connections 2025 Plan” Is Currently In Development – And Guess What the Community Survey Reveals…

You can read about the new plan here. The “Community Survey Summary” offers many insights into what people like and dislike most about Capital Metro. Not surprisingly, the results of one survey question jumped out at me.

Question 15, Page 17: “I Would Ride Capital Metro more often if…”

The highest ranking response, at 50% was, “If the buses ran more frequently.” You can You can see the graph here.

Let’s Add Bus Improvements to the Conversation About Transportation Bonds In November

I will be meeting with Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and City Council Member Ann Kitchen to encourage them to support just such a plan. Both of them serve on the Capital Metro Board. I will also bring it up with the Mayor’s staff. With the road bonds set to appear on the November ballot, only the car-driving folks and bicycle riders will have the opportunity for mobility improvements. Large numbers of people on the lower end of Austin’s devastating economic divide remain trapped in a mobility and affordability quagmire.

So, let’s ask our civic leaders to address the needs of citizens who rely on Capital Metro buses to get to and from their destinations. Not only would those improvements help existing bus riders, but they could very well encourage others to start using the bus system and take some cars off the roads. And while we’re at it, let’s push for a network of park and ride facilities too. Instead of relying on another study headed by an outside consultant, we need a real action plan that budgets these improvements and puts them into place. Our leaders need to deliver the results just as predictably as the roadway and bicycle improvements that we will vote on in November.

Then And Now – The Multiplying Wait Times for Regular Capital Metro Buses

  1. 2008 Capital Metro Schedule Book – Look at Route #1L/1M, North Lamar/South Congress, beginning on Page 23. Note that most of the time intervals on weekdays are 11 to 12 minutes apart. Look at Route #3, Burnet/Manchaca, beginning on Page 33. Note that most of the time intervals on weekdays are 20 to 23 minutes apart.
  2. 2016 Capital Metro Schedule Book – Look at Route #1, Metric/South Congress, which includes North Lamar, beginning on Page 33. Note that most of the time intervals on weekdays have increased to 26 minutes apart. Look at Route #3, Burnet/Manchaca, beginning on Page 41. Note that most of the time intervals on weekdays have increased to 30 to 35 minutes apart.

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Posting:

Walking Songs

  1. “I’m Walking” – Ricky Nelson’s first record, 1957. A bigger hit for Fats Domino
  2. “Walk Right In” – The Rooftop Singers, 1963
  3. “Walk Right Back” – The Everly Brothers, 1961
  4. “I Walk the Line” – Johnny Cash, 1956
  5. “These Boots Are Made for Walking” – Nancy Sinatra, 1966
  6. Walk Like a Man” – The Four Seasons, 1963
  7. “Walking In the Sunshine” – Roger Miller, 1967

Songs About Waiting

  1. “Tired of Waiting for You” – The Kinks, 1965
  2. “I’m Waiting Forever” – Willie Nelson, 1996
  3. “Waiting In the Weeds” – The Eagles, 2007
  4. “Sitting, Waiting, Wishing” – Jack Johnson, 2005
  5. “Right Here Waiting” – Richard Marx, 1989
  6. “Forever” – The Little Dippers (Pseudonym for the Anita Kerr Singers), 1960

Songs for the Man With the Bright Red Book

  1. “The Wild Side of Life” – Hank Thompson, 1951
  2. “Walk On the Wild Side” – Brook Benton, 1962
  3. “The Lord Knows I’m Drinking” – Cal Smith, 1972
  4. “Prisoner’s Song” – Adam Wade, 1962
  5. “In the Jailhouse Now” – Jimmy Wakely, 1957
  6. “I Saw the Light” – Willie Nelson & Leon Russell, 1979
  7. “Down to the River to Pray” – Alison Krauss, 2000
  8. “Me And Jesus” – Tom T. Hall, 1972
  9. “The Baptism of Jesse Taylor” – Johnny Russell, 1973
  10. “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” – Patsy Cline, 1960
  11. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” – The Lettermen, 1965

Watch KVUE Town Hall On Rail Bonds This Tuesday

By Bill Oakey, October 17, 2014

Be sure to set your DVR or be on hand to watch KVUE’s town hall on Austin’s rail and road proposition. It will air this coming Tuesday October 21st from 11:00 to 12:00 noon. The forum will be moderated by KVUE News anchors Tyler Sieswerda and Terri Gruca. Their questions will lead the discussions and provide equal time to address those who support and those who do not support the bond proposition.

Here are the details:

PANELISTS & THEIR TITLES

AGAINST: Lyndon Henry / Transportation Planning Consultant

FOR: Natalie Cofield / President & CEO Greater Austin Black Chamber

AGAINST: Roger Falk / Travis County Taxpayers Union

FOR: Lee Leffingwell / Mayor of Austin

AGAINST: Richard Franklin / Member of Gray Panthers

FOR: Joah Spearman / Austin business owner

AGAINST: Bill Oakey / AustinAffordability.com blog writer

FOR: John Langmore / Former Capital Metro Board Member

AGAINST: Jim Skaggs / Coalition on Sustainable Transportation

FOR: Martha Smiley / Vice Chair, Regional Mobility and Transportation for the Austin Chamber of Commerce

The High Cost And Backwards Logic Of MoPac Toll Lanes

By Bill Oakey – July 13, 2014

Everyone knows that MoPac and I-35 are the two busiest roadways in Central Texas.  So, with interest rates having been at historic lows over the last several years, why hasn’t the Legislature and TxDOT given priority to both roadways and borrowed the money to add more lanes?

I’m talking about more lanes for everybody, not just the fortunate ones who can afford to pay tolls every day in both directions, going to and from their jobs.  There are a number of ironies to this situation.  For one thing, the McMansions and high-density luxury housing binge in the Austin urban core has priced many of the once-considered middle class people out into the less expensive suburbs.  Even without tolls, the commuting costs for these residents is high.  So, adding express lanes for the privileged will not help them at all.

Here’s another strange irony.  The pay-if-you-can toll lanes will feature a variable pricing structure that actually discourages the use of the toll lanes to relieve congestion.  During the morning and afternoon rush periods, the more people who enter the toll lanes, the higher the toll meter will jump.  The theory behind that is to keep the paid lanes moving at a consistently reliable speed.  But, as the lanes gradually fill, the price of entry starts to rise.  What that will do is keep people away and ensure that the free lanes remain congested.

There is only one way to even out the flow of traffic on all of the lanes during peak periods.  This could happen if people drove onto the toll lanes in large numbers, just hoping that their trip will be faster because they paid a high toll.  Well, guess what?  The maximum toll will kick in when the toll lanes are just as congested as the free lanes.  People will figure that out over time and not see enough benefit to paying the high tolls.  That will push them back onto the free lanes, only to create annoying congestion on those.  If MoPac doesn’t have enough traffic now to fill up two more lanes during rush hour, it surely will before long.

In my opinion, the whole yo-yo system was designed by a bunch of yo-yos!  I shudder to think how much it will cost to build and maintain the complex electronic apparatus to constantly assess and juggle the toll rates.  The contract for that must have been a juicy plum for a bunch of political cronies.

Here Comes My Favorite Question – How Do They Do It In Other Cities?

A somewhat similar toll lane system was tried in Seattle with very poor results.  What happened is explained in a June 2013 article called, “If Drivers Won’t Pay to Bypass Congestion, Why Should Taxpayers?”  Here is an excerpt:

“The 10 miles of priced lanes — the only “HOT” lanes in the Pacific Northwest — were converted from HOV lanes in 2008 and cost $18 million to implement. Five years later, Seattle-based sustainability think tank Sightline Institute reports that usage and toll revenue on the lanes are far lower than anticipated. Last year, the lanes collected about one-third the revenue of the most conservative predictions from the Washington Department of Transportation.”

How Much Will the MoPac Tolls Cost You?

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority has a website that will answer all of your questions.  The title is “About the MoPac ‘Improvement’ Project.”  There is a long column of information boxes.  The details on the cost of the tolls is in the 45th box.  Here is the key sentence:

“Preliminary studies suggest toll rates will normally be less than $4.00, but they could go much higher at times of peak demand.”

My Comment:  The wording implies that $4.00 is a very modest rate.  The “much higher” amount for peak demand times is conveniently not disclosed.  Even at $8.00 per daily round trip, you would be looking at 21 working days per month for a total “ka-ching” cash register ring-up of $168.00.  But what the heck, it’s only money!

Since You’re Going to Love the MoPac Toll Lanes, How About Some More?

Yes, before the paint gets applied or even has a chance to dry on the decorated sound walls for the MoPac “improvement” project, plans are underway for the sequel.  Are you ready for paid toll lanes on 183 between MoPac and SH 45?  See the news article here.  If you live in Anderson Mill and the modest rate of $8.00 per day applies on that stretch of road, you could also take the MoPac express lanes and zip into downtown Austin.  The total would only run you $336.00 per month.  What a bargain!  Gosh, if only you could make that move out to Cedar Park.  Then you could enjoy the privilege of paying a third set of daily tolls with 183A!

Final Question – Who Gets to Use the Express Lanes?

In other cities where there are special tolled lanes, they are usually established as “HOT” lanes. That stands for “high occupancy toll lanes.”  These are a hybrid of “HOV” or high occupancy vehicle lanes, which we have never had here in Austin.  The cities that use HOT lanes grant free access to cars with more than one occupant, to encourage car pooling and relieve congestion. But Austin couldn’t be that efficient.  Every car using an express lane will pay the same toll, regardless of the number of passengers.  The MoPac “Improvement” website encourages carpooling passengers to “split the cost of the tolls, to make them more affordable.”

Update:  CTRMA Website Shows Links to 11 Cities Across the Nation That Offer Free Access For Carpooling!

If you click this link and review the case studies for all of the cities listed, you will find that 11 out of 12 clearly state that they offer free access to express lanes for carpooling.  Most of the cities also offer free access for private vanpools and motorcycles.  All of our State and local transportation officials owe us an explanation as to why the MoPac express lanes will not offer this access. They need to tell us whether they are really interested in mobility and relieving congestion, or whether this toll lane thing is just a big money grab!   You can contact the CTRMA officials here.  If you contact them, you might also ask for some detailed transparency on the cost range of the tolls at different time periods.  Most of the other cities offer this information online.  Why should Austin have to settle for second-rate service and mediocre treatment of taxpayers?

Here Is One More Final Question…

This one is also from the MoPac “Improvement” website:

Question: “How high can the toll rate go?”

Answer: “There is no limit on the toll rate.”

Click here to listen to the classic Jackie Wilson song, “Higher and Higher.”

Who Do You Know That Supports The Highland Mall To Riverside Rail Plan?

By Bill Oakey – June 6, 2014

Quick question – How many friends, neighbors and acquaintances do you know that plan to vote for the Highland Mall to Riverside urban rail bonds in November?

What was that…say again…?

Try asking that question the next time you are at a restaurant, a backyard gathering, a party, or a civic function.  The first thing you might hear is that they haven’t really thought enough about it.  Or, you might hear that they need to wait and see what the City Council decides to put on the ballot.

What you probably will not hear is a resounding chorus of support for the proposed rail plan and the staggering stair steps of annual property tax increases that come along with it.  (The Austin American-Statesman reported that the tax bite could raise our property taxes by 15% over the next six years).

I’ve been to enough public events over the past year to know that the kind of broad support needed to pass the rail bonds is simply not there.  The core voters who turn out for every Austin election do not have the “yes word” on their lips when the subject comes up.

What’s even more telling is how seldom the subject comes up at all.

We all hear a lot about traffic and transportation, and how Austin needs to find a way to deal with it.  But in all my discussions with various City Council candidates for the districts and the mayor’s race, not a single one has voluntarily brought up the Highland Mall to Riverside rail plan or told me that they were clamoring for it to pass.

And I will go another step further.  I’ve had numerous appointments with current City Council members on affordability issues since last year.  Not a single one of them has urged me to support the urban rail plan.  This tells me that at least some of them probably dread the fact that they are up against an August deadline to make a decision on what to put on the November ballot.  I strongly suspect that several Council members toss and turn at night, wishing that the issue would simply go away.  With the possible exception of Mayor Lee Leffingwell.

So, Where Does That Leave Austin After The Rail Bonds Fail?

That will be the subject of my blog posting on Monday.  You might be very surprised at the positive outcome that I will predict.