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Study shows tolls to raise travel time on some routes

Wednesday, September 13, 2006 by

The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) Board voted Monday night to work with the CTRMA, TxDOT, Capital Metro, and other agencies to do an extensive study of the environmental justice issues related to the Phase 2 toll road plan.

East Austin activists, who had protested outside the previous CAMPO board meeting claiming the toll road network would hurt low income and minority drivers, had asked for a delay on that vote to give them time to read the initial study prepared for TxDOT by engineering firm HNTB that showed there would not be a disproportionately adverse impact on those groups.

“There’s very little empirical evidence since there are no toll roads now, but the study indicated…based on computer modeling…that there was no significant unequal impact on environmental justice populations,” said CAMPO Executive Director Michael Aulick. “The first toll roads in this area will open in December…and it’s necessary for all of these agencies to cooperate to do further study on this question.” That study could take more than two years to complete.

The study will not focus directly on traditional environmental concerns such as air quality or water quality, said Aulick, but on transportation and economic questions. “It means the social environment, and it’s of low income and minority populations.”

So far, the main area of study has been on the impact that toll roads would have on travel times in different parts of the city. According to TxDOT District Engineer Bob Daigh, the conclusion of the HNTB study was that the Phase 2 toll road plan would not have a significantly different impact on travel times in low income and minority neighborhoods in East Austin when compared to the rest of the city.

Austin City Council Member Brewster McCracken challenged that conclusion, pointing to a portion of the study that showed travel times getting worse, not better, if the toll road system was built.

“This is the one I’m trying to get my arms around…62 of the 64 modeling runs conducted for the travel time analysis resulted in longer travel times under the toll-build alternative compared to the no-toll build alternative within this region,” he said. “So in other words, the report has concluded that the Phase 2 toll road system would produce worse traffic congestion than the non-toll road system. Is that what this is saying?”

Daigh responded that the conclusion McCracken made was beyond the scope of the study. “I don’t believe so,” he said. “It says that there is not a disproportionate negative effect on the environmental justice community. Daigh went a step further, saying McCracken was not necessarily making a direct comparison on travel times.

“You don’t need to do 62 model runs to know that you’re going to have increased travel time on the non-tolled facility…if you’re comparing non-toll express lanes and non-toll frontage roads versus tolled express lanes and non-tolled frontage roads,” Daigh said. “You’re going to have more people on the non-tolled frontage roads. The question is, is that difference in travel times significant or not? You’ve got a $10 billion transportation funding deficit here…are you ever going to get all these roads built? And if you don’t get them built, what’s the effect on our system?”

However, the study states that, “Six of the 56 trip modeling runs with trips originating in the environmental justice districts resulted in increases in travel-times,” of more than five minutes. Those times ranged from 5.24 minutes and 9.29 minutes. Those occurred in trips originating in Hays and Williamson Counties, not Travis County, according to the study.

McCracken obviously had further questions for Daigh and staffers from the Federal Highway Administration, but was cut off by State Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, who had earlier warned McCracken about extending his line of questioning.

Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe moved to support the Memorandum of Understanding between CAMPO and the other agencies, effectively giving direction to proceed with the environmental justice study recommended by the staff. “I don’t know that I’ve heard a reason to wait,” Biscoe said.

“I agree with the Judge,” said Mayor Will Wynn. “There’s no reason to delay this. Many of us might be frustrated that it might take years to get this information. In theory, as we continue to make decisions as these plans continue to progress over the years, let’s continue to get information we need to make those decisions. Let’s get the information sooner rather than later by starting now.”

Domestic partner benefits to begin Oct. 1

Beginning next month, 122 domestic partners of city employees and retirees will be covered by the same kind of health insurance as the spouses of employees. Director of Human Resources Cathy Rodgers said the city held open enrollment for employees wishing to sign up for the benefit outside the regular enrollment period because, “Council wanted us to get started as quickly as we could.”

More than two-thirds of those voting in the May election supported a change to the city charter repealing the ban on offering health insurance for the same-sex partners of city employees. The vote reversed a ban on health insurance for city employees' domestic partners approved by voters in 1994 after a divisive and bitter campaign.

Rodgers said the city budget approved on Monday allocates $500,000 for the benefit, the same amount the city would pay for an equal number of spouses. Only four of the 122 newly covered partners are retirees’ partners, Rodgers said.

One of those who worked hard for passage of the charter amendment was Assistant City Attorney Laurie Eiserloh. “As a city employee who has signed up for benefits for my partner of 17 years, we could not be more pleased,” Eiserloh said.

Eiserloh, who has been with her partner for 17 years, added, “It’s just a matter of fairness and it feels great…great to have the benefits but it’s also very affirming to have the voters and city government be so supportive of domestic partner benefits and of our lives.”

Employees trying to buy health insurance for their partners—like most who deal with the health insurance market on their own—have found the search frustrating and expensive. Often that insurance carries a high deductible, making even a routine battery of tests very expensive.

Council Member Lee Leffingwell explained that employees have always able to get coverage for opposite sex partners “but you had to go through a long, complicated process.” That is no longer the case so long as that partner shares the household and resources and has what city Human Resources Department describes as “a close person, intimate relationship” with the employee. There are a few other requirements for heterosexuals, such as not being prohibited by law from marrying.

The Council considered extending benefits along the lines of what Travis County offers, known as Plus One, Leffingwell recalled. “We decided not to go that way now because the actuaries said it was a potentially high risk thing. So we decided to do it incrementally,” he said.

The city has about 10,000 employees and about 2,500 retirees, Rodgers said. Travis County has about 3400 employees and about 400 retirees covered by insurance, according to Travis County Risk and Benefits Manager Dan Mansour.

Mansour said the county has just completed open enrollment so he did not have the numbers for the coming year. However, he added, “Last year we had about 64 or 65 Plus Ones. About half were relatives,” such as mothers of employees, he said.

Those opting to insure a relative not a spouse are only about “one-tenth of one percent” of those covered, he said. Mansour said he did not know how long the county had used the Plus One system, but that it started before he came to the job 11 years ago.

©2006 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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