COVID-19 revealed overdue Central Texas transportation upgrades — here’s how

Traffic

AUSTIN (KXAN) — With Austin metro traffic nearly back to pre-pandemic levels and the school year just around the corner, state and local leaders stressed an urgency for innovative solutions to Central Texas’s continued transportation growing pains.

“The challenges are many, and the time is now,” said Kyle Mayor Travis Mitchell. “Because if we are not making strategic, bold decisions right now, we’re gonna get left in the dust.”

Mitchell was one of several municipal leaders from the Austin region that took part in a mobility summit Wednesday, hosted by the nonprofit organization Movability. The virtual discussion focused on post-pandemic mobility, as well as the intersections between transportation and equity, housing, economics and the environment.

Calls for multimodal transportation initiatives

As the Central Texas region has grown and the costs of living have increased, more residents are having to rely on commuting to their workplaces. As commute times have increased in Austin and more people return to work, local leaders stressed the importance of mass transit opportunities to enhance efficiency and quality of life.

“Having multimodal transportation is going to be very important for regional goals like affordability, population growth, job distribution,” said Anton Cox, program manager at Movability.

In Kyle, Mitchell said the city launched a subsidized rideshare program in late 2020 to allow residents the choice of where they’d like to go, at a cost more readily available to them.

When Mitchell was first elected to Kyle City Council in 2016, more than 80% of the city’s workforce commuted outside the city for employment. He said that statistic was a jumping off point for creating a transit supplement to help develop a live-work-play environment within Kyle.

The program, Uber Kyle 314, has picked up traction within the city — so much so that city leaders are expanding its offerings and adding subsidized costs to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

“From point to point, 24 hours a day, seven days a week in the city of Kyle, using our app, you can schedule an Uber ride, and the city will subsidize and pay a good portion of that cost,” he said. “And it’ll be about $3.14 for each ride, you know, from point to point.”

Growing demand for state assistance

Present on Wednesday’s call were State Sen. Sarah Eckhardt and State Rep. Celia Israel. From her perspective, Eckhardt said multimodal transportation funding is not prevalent at the state level, compared to conversations happening regionally and locally.

“We’re really struggling at the state level in terms of state funding, or state controlled funding, coming to our transit programs, also to our demand management programs, including toll infrastructure,” she said.

“We’re going to have to up our game as leaders to talk constantly and hit that panic button on the connection between mobility and affordability.”

State rep. celia israel

Eckhardt said Austin’s transportation system currently has “significant capacity,” but aren’t managing demand at the best of its abilities.

Through the pandemic, she said the rise of telecommuting proved Central Texas needs to incentivize more opportunities for residents to work from home, enhancing their qualities of life.

“One of the silver linings is we do see ways that we can talk with our employer community about ways to continue this telecommuting, these ride share programs, and this better utilization of the infrastructure we have.”

Federally, she said the INVEST in America Act — a comprehensive piece of legislation addressing road, transit, rail, water and wastewater infrastructure — passed in the U.S. House of Representatives in early July, while Senate draft negotiations are ongoing.

Israel said that, in addition to needs for multimodal transportation methods, the Central Texas real estate housing market has spurred on plenty of financial growing pains for residents looking to buy homes or who are at risk of being forced out of the region.

Israel said more transportation-centered resources, such as Park & Ride transit options, could help alleviate some of the transit strains facing commuters. Some initiatives she has looked into at the state level, and continues to advocate for, include alternative fuel vehicles and reducing standard neighborhood speed limits to 25 miles per hour to improve safety.

“We’re going to have to up our game as leaders to talk constantly and hit that panic button on the connection between mobility and affordability,” she said. “I think it’s got to move simultaneously in everything that we do and in our brains.”

Cynthia Long serves as a Williamson County commissioner as well as chair of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. She said the challenge facing each Central Texas municipality is thinking both on the macro and micro level of day to day, local transportation initiatives, as well as how they intertwine on a regional level.

For local roadway concerns, she said that jurisdiction relies on municipal leaders. When it comes to regional ingenuity, that’s when CAMPO and other major boards must come into play, she added.

“I think that’s going to be the biggest challenge going forward is is trying to get folks to realize we’re not there to focus on local roads, we’re there to think big picture regionally,” she said. “We’ve got to focus locally, but we’ve got to think regionally.”

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