Looking back at local traffic in 2012
From high-speed highways to high-speed races, Austin area had a very busy year.
A planned vote on an Austin urban rail system got off track, while the feared Formula one traffic tsunami never hit.
I heard it more than once over the past several months from friends and strangers alike, the idea that as our economy grows, traffic congestion seems to get worse.
And with job numbers rising, homes sales bustling and apartment occupancy way up, it only makes sense. After a lull from 2008 to 2010, when Texas Department of Transportation traffic counts on some area highways flattened or even edged down, 2011 saw modest increases on many Central Texas highways. The 2012 counts almost surely will show more increases.
But it’s not just more people. In some cases, it’s policy.
In Austin, particularly in and near downtown, city officials have made no bones about their intentions to pro- mote alternative transportation by reducing car lanes to make way for bike lanes and wider sidewalks. South Congress Avenue, which is 90 feet wide, has roots as a highway to San Antonio and long has been a reliable and spacious commuter route to South Austin.
But it got a gantlet of new traffic signals and, this year, a series of “bulb-out” concrete islands that have turned the road strictly into a 55-footwide, five-lane road. And with new bus stops also moved out into the street, drivers, who used to zip by while a bus pulled over near the curb, now must stop behind them in the right-hand lane.
Officials say all of this, including the $21.7 million project to build a Lady Bird Lake boardwalk that began construction late in the year, is to make Austin “multimodal,” a place where mass transit, carpooling, biking and walking are viable alternatives to single-occupant vehicles. Maybe so, in some near or distant year to come. But in the Austin of 2012, this year’s transportation news indicates we’re still very much a carcentric place.
Urban rail derailed
Austin City Council members and the city’s Transportation Department for several years have been pushing for an electric-powered “urban rail” system, and November 2012 was going to have the election to ask voters for authority to borrow a few hundred million dollars for a first phase. In May, we got the details: $550 million for 5.5 miles between downtown and the Mueller community in East Austin.
But in June, Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who had wanted
such an election as early as 2010, said, no, not yet. Too many unanswered questions, he said. And maybe a lack of political support, particularly given the competing proposal to ask voters for a big property tax increase associated with a proposed University of Texas medical school.
The medical school proposition passed, as did a $143.3 million city transportation bond proposal. Urban rail planning, using federal grants and other city money, goes on. No word when there might be an election to raise the real money.
Safe at any speed?
Central Texas transportation was briefly in the national spotlight this fall as TxDOT and its private partner, a consortium led by a Spanish toll road company, prepared to open the country’s only 85 mph road.
The $1.4 billion, 41-mile extension of the Texas 130 tollway from Mustang Ridge to Seguin opened to light traffic Oct. 24, though not so light that some luckless feral hogs didn’t meet their makers in the first 24 hours crossing the road.
Those dead hogs, and that high speed limit, led to fears the road would be a deadly porcine obstacle course. That turned out to be unfounded.
But there has been one person killed. Martha Melinda Harris, a Lockhart nurse, died the afternoon of Nov. 11 when her Honda Civic was hit on the driver’s side by an SUV traveling southbound in the toll road’s outside lane.
The police report doesn’t make it clear what effect, if any, speed had on the accident.
Meanwhile, what many feel is an artificially low speed limit, the 55 mph allowed on that tollway’s frontage road, has been unpopular with Caldwell County residents.
The speed limit on that same stretch, before the tollway construction when what was then called U.S. 183 was an undivided four-lane road, was 65 mph. TxDOT officials in October said they would conduct another speed study once the tollway opened and could change that 55 mph limit. That study hasn’t yet occurred.
In other tollway news, TxDOT decided to ditch its cash toll booths on three Central Texas tollways (the other two have been cashless since opening) and, more than six years after the Central Texas Turnpike System debuted, to raise the tolls.
The booths will close and tolls increase (50 percent on Loop 1 and Texas 45 North, 25 percent on the northern 49 miles of Texas 130) starting Jan. 1.
The first section of the area’s sixth tollway, U.S. 290 East in Northeast Austin, opened in late November. Tolls begin Jan. 5 on that 1.5 miles of road.
And the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority in April opened another 5.1 miles of the 183-A tollway.
If you count all 41 miles of Texas 130’s new section (although much of it is closer to San Antonio than Austin), the area now has about 125 miles of tollways.
Not so much. The rumblings and the trembling about what might happen to Austin traffic when the Formula One race came to town began more than a year before the race. Sometimes fear can be useful.
Race organizers and local officials, working with transportation consultants experienced with these sorts of megaevents, devised an elaborate transportation plan that made use of shuttle buses, taxis, helicopters, bicycles, limousines and, of course, private vehicles.
It worked. There was little traffic congestion getting to the Southeast Austin track during the three-day race weekend, and the only real trouble came after the race on the last day. Even that congestion — the track and nearby roads were mostly clear three hours after the grand prix ended — fell well short of early, dire predictions.
Then, about a week later, we found out that the Big 12 had scheduled a University of Texas home football game on the same weekend as next year’s F1 race. Let the trembling resume.
The local transit agency, acting at the behest of the Legislature, in August outsourced the remaining 70 percent of its bus service.
The union representing the several hundred bus drivers, mechanics and maintenance workers, in a vote by a relatively small sampling of the workforce, authorized a strike just before the F1 race weekend.
But as the year nears its end, union leaders haven’t called a walkout.
MetroRail, the agency’s commuter rail line, added Friday night and Saturday service in March, and its ridership climbed to about 2,500 a day this fall, a 74 percent increase over a year earlier.
But that ridership still represents a tiny fraction of Central Texas commuters.
And without a second set of tracks and more than the meager current inventory of six train cars, MetroRail ridership is unlikely to continue growing at anything close to that pace.
The train service, which began in March 2010 on a 32-mile route between Leander and downtown Austin, in late April had its first fatality.
Jeremy Barta, a 32-yearold restaurant owner exiting a private road and crossing the track as he prepared to take his two sons to elementary school, came to a stop on the track and died when his sedan was hit by the train.
The boys but survived. A report by police said that the train’s engineer didn’t immediately hit the brakes after seeing the car on the tracks.
And, finally, this
Capital Metro ended the year by touting an award it got from the Texas comptroller for being transparent, that is, for aggressively posting its financial doings on its website.
To celebrate, Capital Metro made six of those “bus wraps” that you often see on the agency’s fleet advertising one thing or another.
The wraps, on one side of the buses, cost the agency $13,728.
“Seriously transparent,” they say.
PEDESTRIAN FRIENDLY: A pedestrian crosswalk area is full of people waiting to cross South Congress Avenue on Sunday. South Congress, once a spacious commuter route, is now a gantlet of traffic signals and ‘bulb out’ concrete islands that have restricted traffic flow. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Fans board shuttles at the Travis County Exposition Center for last month’s F1 race . Elaborate planning for the race defused any traffic congestion problems.
SPEED LIMITS: Parts of State Highway 130 have an 85-mph limit, highest in the nation. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
CONSTRUCTION: Work begins on the Lady Bird Lake