Congestion plagues plans for growth

In the face of several projects and plans developed to manage Austin's growth, stakeholders and residents have started to host community conversations to discuss the implications of this growth, and whether Austin has the resources to continue to provide the quality of living residents are used to.

Local nonprofit groups, such as the Metropolitan Breakfast Club and Leadership Austin, have scheduled speakers for recent and future meetings to discuss the issues that reside in Austin's future growth.

"Since the beginning of this year's series that started in October, monthly attendance at the events has more than doubled [over last year's attendance]," Leadership Austin CEO Heather McKissick said. "What that means is that more and more people in Austin are coming to the table interested in the conversation about issues that make this community run, and that's our mission."

Identifying issues

As Austin continues to top the ranks of cities listed as either desirable or as having thriving economies, it has also earned a place on a not-so-positive list, said Charlie Betts, executive director of the Downtown Austin Alliance. During a Jan. 18 session of the Metropolitan Breakfast Club, Betts told attendees Austin is ranked third on the list of cities nationwide that have the worst travel times, a fact the city will need to work hard—and invest significantly in—to change.

"We're so pleased about being so high on all of these lists, but I worry we might jinx ourselves, that we've got nowhere to go but down," Betts said. "We are going to have to make transportation investments big time to keep from going the wrong way."

Despite Austin's desirability, its commuters spend an average of 44 hours each year stuck in traffic, Betts said. They city's most congested time of day is 6 p.m., as more than 500,000 vehicles try to exit Austin through one of its few arterial routes.

"It will be expensive, but it's an investment we are going to have to make or we're going to choke on congestion," Betts said.

Identifying the problem's source

Leadership Austin focused its seven-month-long speaker series—which began in October—on implications of Austin's growth. The group spent its first two events talking about the effect transportation will have on the city's future, including one breakfast meeting as well as a town hall event that was televised on KXAN-TV.

As a panelist during the group's first event, Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, also identified transportation as a significant growth setback. He now says the state's lack of financial support is the culprit and has wreaked havoc on Austin's infrastructure.

"What has happened is the State of Texas, over a relatively short period time, has basically abdicated its responsibility of providing sufficient funding so we can meet the growing needs and demands of this state," Watson said. "Our predecessors have made investments in our infrastructure that have allowed us to succeed economically. I worry that the state has put us in a situation where we are looking at the first generation of Texans who won't inherit any excess of capacity as they make their way into the economy."

Taking charge, as a city

Finding sources of funding and revenue to improve the city's congestion problems will be key to resolving these issues, Watson said.

To help address the situation, in 2011 Watson successfully pushed Rider 42 through the Legislature, which set aside $300 million in Proposition 12 funds for feasibility, planning and engineering studies to be conducted on the state's 50 most congested corridors—six of which are in Central Texas. Those projects include I-35 between US 290 and US 183, North Lamar Boulevard between Sixth Street and 45th Street, MoPac between Hwy. 290 and US 183, Loop 360 between MoPac and US 290, South Lamar Boulevard between Hwy. 290 and I-35 and Hwy. 290 West between MoPac and FM 1826. The six projects will be reviewed to show that improvements are needed sooner rather than later.

"With this amount of money, it doesn't fix things, but allows initially for engineering and more study," Watson said. "The prayer is when we do this, we'll be able to go to the Legislature and say, 'See, here is where the money can go to and here is where you can get the most bang for your buck.' Then we can address the issue of transportation."

Power of the public

Despite Central Texas' long-standing reputation as a mix of congested roadways, Watson added, the power to change the situation lies within voters who realize that it will take funding and additional revenue to bring Austin out of its transportation slump.

"Without money, we can't even come close to trying to address to transportation, and money is the No. 1 issue," he said. "Voters need to start demanding our public officials be honest with us about what the cost of providing these kinds of things really is, instead of promising something for nothing. Some of those things may be paid through by tools, or other different approaches, but if we want to address our transportation needs, it's going to require funding."

Ramping up public transportation

Betts said Austin can resolve its transportation woes by investing in a better public transportation system, as little can be done to expand the city's current roadway system.

"In our city, we have built our streets. There is very little we can do to expand our streets," he said, adding that in the face of expansion, additional roads are being developed on Austin's periphery, which places more pressure on arterial roads and highways that already suffer from congestion.

"Our only long-term solution is building a better public transit system," Betts said.

According to the DAA, with the development projects on tap for Austin—such as federal courthouse and the Seaholm renovation —an additional 10,000 to 20,000 new employees will soon work in Austin's core, many of whom will also rely on the city's main thoroughfares. For this, Betts said, building an expanded commuter rail service will help Austin greatly.

"We've got to have more commuter rail options," he said. "It is going to be key to where people live. We've got to accommodate more growth in a more dense fashion to sustain the growth that's coming."


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