Look­ing back at lo­cal traf­fic in 2012

From high-speed high­ways to high-speed races, Austin area had a very busy year.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - Con­tin­ued from B Con­tact Ben Wear at: bwear@states­man.com; 4453698.

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.

F1 quag­mire?

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.

Metro­Rail rid­er­ship

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

F1 SHUT­TLES: JAY JAN­NER / 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

Ben Wear

TRANS­PORTA­TION SAFETY: A man was killed and two chil­dren hurt in April in a crash in­volv­ing a Metro­rail train in North Austin. ralph barrera / amer­i­Can-states­man

ri­Cardo b. brazziell / amer­i­Can-states­man

CON­STRUC­TION: Work be­gins on the Lady Bird Lake

board­walk.

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