AUSTIN (CLASS/KXAN) - No matter what side of the debate they're on, just about anyonein Austin can agree that the city’s transportation network isa nightmare.
Try driving on Mopac or I-35 during rush hour - when some of theworst bottlenecks in the nation have been recorded - andyou’ll discover a whole new dimension of road rage. Add aholiday weekend, downtown festival, or UT sports event? Austinitesmay as well stay at home.
Add a 2009 Mayoral race? Austin could face real gridlock.
Candidates offer a variety of solutions to the problem, butagree on two things: It’s a major issue for Austin, and itneeds to be fixed.
A ferocious debate
Transportation is a ferocious debate in Austin.
Like citizens, the 2009 Mayoral candidates agree that change isnecessary, but prioritizing projects and providing a comprehensivetransportation network to Austin-area residents is a majorchallenge.
Transportation infrastructure and maintenance is extremelyexpensive. Austin faces the same challenges of most urbancommunities to adequately fund transportation infrastructuremaintenance and expansion.
According to Texas Department of Transportation (TxDoT), Austinwill receive some federal stimulus funding for resurfacing countyroadways Highway 281, RM 2341, FM 2349, FM 180, SH 71, andMopac.
Economic stimulus funds for Austin also provide for expandedbike and pedestrian paths and and interchange ramp on Highway290.
Top issue for candidates
City Council Lee Leffingwell itemized several initiatives hewould tackle as Mayor: An expanded commuter rail system, expandednetwork of bike lanes and sidewalks, and improved and expandedroads. Leffingwell is the only candidate considering expanding bikelanes and sidewalks. Other candidates focus more on roadmaintenance, congestion, and roadway expansion. AlthoughLeffingwell addresses bike lanes, these projects are likely to be adrop in the bucket cost-wise compared to projects like commuterrail system and road expansions.
Leffingwell’s plan to make it happen? Atransportation-only 2010 bond election.
There are advantages to a transportation-only bond election.This bond election would limit bonds to transportation-relatedprojects and capital investments. Moreover, the bond electionintends to isolate transportation to voters and establish a clearchoice. Many inconvenienced, dispirited, exhausted commuters (andfamilies) would have an unprecedented opportunity to make theirvoices heard.
Leffingwell admirably proposes a unique financing option forCity of Austin, but there are a few disadvantages. First, accordingto a 2008 report by Austin Community College’s Center forPublic Policy and Political Studies, despite growth in populationand voter registration over the last 35 years, the average voterturnout has remained virtually unchanged. The report further findsthat 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 futurecould be concentrated in the hands of few.
Whether or not this transportation-only bond proposal willremain transportation-only isn’t the only question.Leffingwell must garner significant political support from CityCouncil members, City staff, and voters to place the bond electionon the ballot. That won’t be the trickiest part. In order toeven form the transportation-only bond election, Mayor and Councilmust decide and finalize the pesky part: agreeing on thetransportation projects themselves.
Leffingwell recommends supplementing the transportation-onlybond election with other initiatives: increasing lobbying effortsfor federal dollars and pursuing other transportation legislationat the local and state levels.
Although Mayor Pro Tem Brewster McCracken has yet to propose afull scale transportation initiative, his campaign outlines severalproposals. For Austin: well-funded road maintenance, land usepolicies that promote mixed use infill development, continuedimprovement in stoplight timing, and construction of roadimprovements.
For the greater Central Texas region, which would encompass“bedroom communities” where there are residents who areaffected by Austin traffic, a multi-modal expansion of Texastransportation infrastructure, primarily including bus, light rail,and roadways initiatives.
McCracken agrees with professional recommendations from CapitalArea Metropolitan Planning Agency (CAMPO), and Texas TransportationInstitute (TTI) that the US 290E, the 290/71 Y at Oak Hill, and the71E top the list of badly need traffic congestion alleviation.
McCracken also supports rapid bus transit, commuter rail, and alight rail connection to the airport as infrastructureimprovements.
Although those kinds of ideas have been well-received by localsin the past, it could be difficult to convince Austinites of theirvalue while the area is mired in delays by the much-anticipated CapMetro light-rail project.
Carole Keeton Strayhorn did not respond to a request for herposition 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 creatingmanaged lanes on MoPac, Austin has many options on the table toreduce our city traffic. We must press forward for immediateresults, but do so in a way that market tests the value and successof these projects as phases are completed, rather than committingmillions to future expansion before we see results. Some projectsmay get news coverage and earn political points, but we cannotpursue headlines at the cost of wasted taxpayer dollars. If aproject does not deliver what is promised, our city must look toother options."
Sarah H. Chen is a graduate student at The University of AustinLBJ School of Public Affairs, specializing in Urban and StateAffairs. She can be reached by email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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