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Travis County addresses some transportation woes

Wednesday, January 20, 2010 by Jacob Cottingham

Travis County Commissioners on Tuesday addressed three different transportation items, each an attempt to address the county’s traffic and, by extension, lower ozone levels.  Commissioners delayed action on a proposed Transportation Management Association shepherded by the Downtown Austin Alliance; were briefed on the Car2Go Smart Car program; and voted to adopt a trial express shuttle program for county employees.


First up, the Downtown Austin Alliance was requesting the county’s participation in a new study to “improve access and mobility downtown,” by contributing $6,000 of the $27,200 needed to fund a feasibility study for a Transportation Management Association. Also known as a TMA, according to the DAA these “are non-profit, membership-based organizations that work in specific geographic areas to increase the efficiency of transportation systems by emphasizing movement of people rather than vehicles.”


UrbanTrans Consultants out of Washington, DC. will be preparing the study, which would help the DAA figure out how a customized TMA could benefit the downtown area. The DAA’s Thomas Butler said the Texas Transportation Institute “found a high likelihood that a TMA in downtown Austin could have a significant effect on traffic conditions.” As part of the project, UrbanTrans will hold stakeholder meetings and surveys as well as conducting a feasibility study.


In May of this year, Butler said the DAA invited the executive director of Portland’s TMA for a “very eye opening,” lecture. In 1998 that TMA saw Portland would no longer be able to bring single-occupancy vehicles into business districts and wanted to increase traffic by splitting the modes of transportation. They wanted to go from 72 percent of downtown visitors driving alone to 33 percent by 2015. Butler said they were “very close” to their goal with four years left. “We were very inspired to say the least,” he told the court, “and we’d like to see something similar in Austin.”


The study would help to figure out the cost of running an organization, how it should be staffed and where it would be housed and could provide other suggestions if a TMA wasn’t the best solution. They would also produce a business plan and implementation plan to help determine the cost of running a TMA for three years. Butler said “conventional wisdom” put that between $200-250,000 for the first three years.


Already the DAA board approved up to $10,000 for the study and was joined by Cap Metro and City of Austin each of whom contributed $6,000. Butler was asking Travis for $6,000 as well, noting, “the County is a major downtown employer.”

Pct. 1 Commissioner Ron Davis said the county gives about $25,000 each year to the DAA and wondered why the $6,000 couldn’t come from that. Morris Priest, a citizen, pointed out the myriad transportation proposals, studies and organizations, “There are more organizations studying this to death than there are dollars,” he told the court.


Butler told In Fact Daily, “Most of what is going on in transportation is looking at transportation supply…in other words, the infrastructure.” He said transportation demand management through a TMA is “looking at how people are using the existing facilities. You can have an effect on more of a short term nature,” than a multi-year highway project. Ultimately, action was delayed until next week at the request of Commissioner Davis, who wanted more time to study the program, its participation and potential.


Paul DeLong, a representative from Car2Go, which has been operating a pilot program involving short-term Smart Car rentals downtown through City of Austin employees, explained his program. Calling the program “car share 2.0,” he explained that participants in the pilot program would get access to 200 Smart Cars, which are parked around town at high traffic areas. When the client gets in, they link their account to the car usage. Pct. 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt explained, “you just take a card and stick it up against the windshield, and it reads the card and then charges you 35 cents a minute. You hit end and it bills you.”


The billing is more similar to a taxi than a car rental, and DeLong said it encourages people to take mass transit into town if they know they can then utilize a private vehicle for a short time for errands or brief cross-town trips. Eckhardt also noted its replacement factor. “With this you have ten people using one vehicle in one spot instead of ten people using ten vehicles.”


Judge Sam Biscoe was familiar with the program but asked, “I’ve never seen one of those cars going down the street with a driver, but if I wanted to see that, what is the best location?” He was told librarians surprisingly make up one of the largest groups of city users. Commissioners have not yet signed the county up for the pilot program, nor were they scheduled for action on the item.


Finally, Commissioners approved a pilot program that would bring far flung county commuters to work en masse. A private shuttle, likely run by Veolia, would pick up employees of the county, AMD, IBM, Austin Energy, Seton and the City of Austin and bring them downtown. The pilot program is enabled through the use of a federal program called a Qualified Transportation Benefit. This allows the county to give participating employees $230 tax-free vouchers from their pay to use toward mass transit and parking. 


Last week the court authorized the QTB and this week they voted unanimously to move forward with an in-house survey and analysis of potential routes for the vans and what sort of initial ridership the county could expect. County parking spaces are currently on a seven-year waitlist. The county expects its share of the initial ridership to be between 50-75 employees.


Robin Rather, representing the Clean Air Force and Environmental Defense Fund, has been guiding the pilot program through its different partners. She said the 90-day pilot should begin in April, although county staff didn’t think they could complete the proper hurdles until June.

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