What good does it do to create all these jobs if you can’t get to the one you have because you’re stuck in traffic?
The ETC Institute just released a survey about how Austinites perceive the job we’re doing at City Hall. The results should not shock you in the slightest.
People like Austin as a place to live, work, and raise their children. No surprise there.
Inextricably linked to affordability is the second-biggest expense for most families, and that’s transportation. And if time is money, then we’re spending an awful lot of money stuck in traffic every year. The news late last year that I-35 had become the most congested road in Texas surprised no one living here. Traffic congestion on I-35 has gotten so bad, people in Houston feel sorry for us.
Our mobility problems are bigger than I-35, of course. We all relate to it in our own way, whether it’s having to sit in rush hour traffic every day to get home from work, to live in a neighborhood without sidewalks, riding a bike in traffic, to stewing in resentment as you sit at an intersection as the light turns green. And then red. And then green. And then, if you’re lucky, you get to the next intersection where you watch the light turn green -- but you don’t go.
That ETC survey that told us Austinites think we’re doing a bad job planning for growth also found that fewer one in five of us -- 17% -- is satisfied with traffic flow on major streets. Really, people in Austin are so fed up with traffic that almost half of us are dissatisfied with the enforcement of traffic laws, partly because we now see how “blocking the box” at intersections slows everyone else down, and also because Austin had 102 traffic fatalities in 2015, well over the previous record of 81. Our city is so congested and dangerous that we wish the police wrote more tickets. That’s how bad traffic is.
We are the city of the future, but what future will it be? If we do not do big things now, we’ll end up with the housing costs of San Francisco and the traffic congestion of Los Angeles. We’ll be immobilized, crippled by growth, isolated from each other, stuck in our neighborhoods.
This must be the year of mobility; it is time, Austin. We have to go to work to help you get to work.
Your Council has now launched a three-month community conversation to set priorities on what mobility projects we want and need to do next and then to decide how we’re going to pay for them. We have to move past planning and talking and do big things.
This means actually taking the corridor plans off the shelf and doing the work on Lamar, Burnet Rd., Airport, MLK and Riverside. It means taking concrete steps to get traffic moving on Loop 360 and RR 620. It means creating more transit lanes so that buses can travel to and from Park N’ Rides located at the perimeter of congestion and travel at no less than 45 mph, passing cars caught in rush-hour traffic jams. We need to work with our mobility partners to build out a network of express lanes on 183-North, MoPac North and South, and IH35, connecting Park & Ride facilities to Austin’s employment centers. Even those of us that don’t want to get out of our cars want those around us to do so; some folks will get out of their cars to get into those faster moving buses.
The Council has wisely acted to direct the City Manager to identify mobility projects that we could consider bringing to the voters in a bond election as early as this fall.
Importantly, we must also turn to the highway that has divided our community for so long but that now unites us in frustration: I-35. The road we all avoid is the one we must now face. It’s time, Austin, to finally do something about I-35 and help fix the most-congested road in Texas.
We are getting into position for a win. This began five years ago in 2011 when the legislature passed Budget Rider 42, appropriating $300 million to look at relieving congestion around Texas. Our very own mobility champion, Senator Kirk Watson, set up a local community stakeholder group and has shepherded the process. He brought in the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M and, working with TxDOT and other transportation experts and advocates, created a focus on the most congested roads in the region, I-35 being the biggest offender. The City of Austin added some money and expertise of our own to help with the process of looking at I-35.
And when it was far enough along, that work transitioned into an additional, more specific and facilitated focus on I-35 as it runs through downtown.
From the start, it was detailed, smart work, led by experts on how to improve our situation. And to have us ready to get to work on projects, instead of just talking about them.
I have never seen a TxDOT community and public engagement process that was as robust as the one they have taken over the last few years. TxDOT did a great job focusing attention, energy and expertise on I-35 in this region and, in particular, our downtown.
This effort has put us in a great position to do big things on I-35. It resulted in a vision for I-35 that runs from SH 45 in the north to SH 45 to the south. And this work should include lowering the I-35 main lanes through downtown to alleviate street level congestion and adding capacity with managed lanes to help alleviate I-35 congestion. This would also allow us to put a cap on top of I-35 to help to heal a physical wound that has too long cut our city in half.
The process has been responsive to community input. My vision for this project includes cooperation with our regional partners, CAMPO and the CTRMA to draw down money from the state and federal government to transform I-35.
Governor Abbott’s important focus on congestion in our State took form just days ago in an announcement by TxDOT Commissioner Bruce Bugg and Chairman Tryon Lewis that Austin should receive $159M to improve key intersections on I-35 when the final vote is taken this month. This important funding goes into some of those improvement projects identified through the process envisioned by Rider 42, and the deliberate, good work that’s been ongoing since that time. This is cause for great celebration, and our City is thankful for this attention and support.
Austin needs more mobility choices to encourage those that will to get out of their cars. We need better transit, bike and pedestrian options.
And at some point in our future, that includes significant mass transit options such as urban rail or other innovative mobility options where people move above our streets. I cannot imagine the Austin metropolitan area, 25 or 30 years from now with 4 million people, not having such infrastructure.
Last month, Capital Metro approved a new study of transportation in our urban core dubbed the Central Corridor Comprehensive Transit Analysis. This 30-month analysis is the next step in improving downtown transit service, and finding solutions for how we can connect more parts of our overall community to each other with real transit options. To get this done, we have to do it right, and right now that means beginning with seriousness and deliberation and not a panicked haste towards our goals.