Updated: Tuesday, 14 Apr 2009, 5:29 PM CDT
Published : Tuesday, 14 Apr 2009, 5:29 PM CDT
AUSTIN (CLASS/KXAN) - No matter what side of the debate they're on, just about anyone in Austin can agree that the city’s transportation network is a nightmare.
Try driving on Mopac or I-35 during rush hour - when some of the worst bottlenecks in the nation have been recorded - and you’ll discover a whole new dimension of road rage. Add a holiday weekend, downtown festival, or UT sports event? Austinites may as well stay at home.
Add a 2009 Mayoral race? Austin could face real gridlock.
Candidates offer a variety of solutions to the problem, but agree on two things: It’s a major issue for Austin, and it needs to be fixed.
A ferocious debate
Transportation is a ferocious debate in Austin.
Like citizens, the 2009 Mayoral candidates agree that change is necessary, but prioritizing projects and providing a comprehensive transportation network to Austin-area residents is a major challenge.
Transportation infrastructure and maintenance is extremely expensive. Austin faces the same challenges of most urban communities to adequately fund transportation infrastructure maintenance and expansion.
According to Texas Department of Transportation (TxDoT), Austin will receive some federal stimulus funding for resurfacing county roadways Highway 281, RM 2341, FM 2349, FM 180, SH 71, and Mopac.
Economic stimulus funds for Austin also provide for expanded bike and pedestrian paths and and interchange ramp on Highway 290.
Top issue for candidates
City Council Lee Leffingwell itemized several initiatives he would tackle as Mayor: An expanded commuter rail system, expanded network of bike lanes and sidewalks, and improved and expanded roads. Leffingwell is the only candidate considering expanding bike lanes and sidewalks. Other candidates focus more on road maintenance, congestion, and roadway expansion. Although Leffingwell addresses bike lanes, these projects are likely to be a drop in the bucket cost-wise compared to projects like commuter rail system and road expansions.
Leffingwell’s plan to make it happen? A transportation-only 2010 bond election.
There are advantages to a transportation-only bond election. This bond election would limit bonds to transportation-related projects and capital investments. Moreover, the bond election intends to isolate transportation to voters and establish a clear choice. Many inconvenienced, dispirited, exhausted commuters (and families) would have an unprecedented opportunity to make their voices heard.
Leffingwell admirably proposes a unique financing option for City of Austin, but there are a few disadvantages. First, according to a 2008 report by Austin Community College’s Center for Public Policy and Political Studies, despite growth in population and voter registration over the last 35 years, the average voter turnout has remained virtually unchanged. The report further finds that when the last sixteen mayoral elections are averaged together, the average voter turnout for the 35 years is just above 60,000. Translation? Decisions on Austin’s transportation future could be concentrated in the hands of few.
Whether or not this transportation-only bond proposal will remain transportation-only isn’t the only question. Leffingwell must garner significant political support from City Council members, City staff, and voters to place the bond election on the ballot. That won’t be the trickiest part. In order to even form the transportation-only bond election, Mayor and Council must decide and finalize the pesky part: agreeing on the transportation projects themselves.
Leffingwell recommends supplementing the transportation-only bond election with other initiatives: increasing lobbying efforts for federal dollars and pursuing other transportation legislation at the local and state levels.
Although Mayor Pro Tem Brewster McCracken has yet to propose a full scale transportation initiative, his campaign outlines several proposals. For Austin: well-funded road maintenance, land use policies that promote mixed use infill development, continued improvement in stoplight timing, and construction of road improvements.
For the greater Central Texas region, which would encompass “bedroom communities” where there are residents who are affected by Austin traffic, a multi-modal expansion of Texas transportation infrastructure, primarily including bus, light rail, and roadways initiatives.
McCracken agrees with professional recommendations from Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Agency (CAMPO), and Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) that the US 290E, the 290/71 Y at Oak Hill, and the 71E top the list of badly need traffic congestion alleviation.
McCracken also supports rapid bus transit, commuter rail, and a light rail connection to the airport as infrastructure improvements.
Although those kinds of ideas have been well-received by locals in the past, it could be difficult to convince Austinites of their value while the area is mired in delays by the much-anticipated Cap Metro light-rail project.
Carole Keeton Strayhorn did not respond to a request for her position on this issue, but on her website she says:
""Whether it is improving reliability for bus routes, implementing rail, developing a workable HOV solution, or creating managed lanes on MoPac, Austin has many options on the table to reduce our city traffic. We must press forward for immediate results, but do so in a way that market tests the value and success of these projects as phases are completed, rather than committing millions to future expansion before we see results. Some projects may get news coverage and earn political points, but we cannot pursue headlines at the cost of wasted taxpayer dollars. If a project does not deliver what is promised, our city must look to other options."
Sarah H. Chen is a graduate student at The University of Austin
LBJ School of Public Affairs, specializing in Urban and State
Affairs. She can be reached by email at