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Council discusses transportation plan, approves planning process

Friday, April 30, 2010 by Jacob Cottingham

Calling traffic congestion one of the Austin’s most pressing problems, Council members instituted a process Thursday to assist city officials in deciding which among the city’s myriad  transportation projects will move to the head of the line when it comes time for a bond election.


Transportation Director Rob Spillar gave Council members a briefing on the Transportation Department’s planned timeline for a proposed November bond election and outlined how the city was going to evaluate and implement as many as 2,000 potential transportation projects across the city.


The briefing and vote centered on the Project Prioritization Process Spillar had presented earlier in the week. (See In Fact Daily, April 27, 2010)


After hearing the presentation, Mayor Lee Leffingwell pointed out that although Austin was no longer the country’s most congested mid-size city, that was only because it had moved up to a higher category and was now the 14th most congested large city in America. He also pointed out that I-35 through Austin was the fourth most congested stretch of highway in the country. “It is a significant problem,” he said.


Council Member Bill Spelman wondered whether the descriptive characteristics in the process properly reflected community values and whether they reflected the characteristics of the so-called ‘gaps’ or their solutions. Spillar said these criteria “apply to both the gap as well as the potential solutions and where we gain the improved specification is the ‘measures of effectiveness.’”


He said such measures could detail how many people are served by an improvement or who may live within a half-mile of proposed gaps. Spillar said different measures of effectiveness may be introduced as the process goes along. “Safety is a good one to point this out,” he explained. “Clearly there are going to be some gaps that point themselves out as safety issues we may need to respond to. As we go through potential solutions for this we may find that one provides a higher level of safety than another.”


Spelman said in the late 1990s, Council would identify intersection issues and come up with engineering solutions such as adding a left turn lane. “But we were never sure in advance how much affect that would have on capacity… and sometimes you have to mess with it a little bit after you try it out.” He said it seemed two concepts were at work – closing the gap and the likelihood that a particular solution would close it. “These are two different ways of thinking about the problem,” he concluded. Spelman worried that more emphasis was being put on the value of closing a gap versus an actual solution to solving that issue. Spillar assured the Council member that the engineering teams fully evaluated the scenario.


Spelman also wondered what proportion of the projects might need further study. Spillar said it would be “hard to say. Clearly the larger the problem the more likely it is for us to suggest a thorough job,” and go before the public. He cited two pilot corridor studies and the urban rail as solutions that were getting expansive study before enacting an engineering fix. The transportation director said there were more projects of high priority than could fit into any one funding cycle. 


Spelman wondered about “a rough-cut estimate” for when different projects would be completed, but Spillar said even though there were no firm dates now, having a notion of when a project might be done would be a necessary part of funding as the projects would be pegged to certain portions of the bond being sold at different times.


Council Member Sheryl Cole wanted to know what effect, if any, some $85 million dedicated to road repairs from a 2006 bond would have on congestion. Acting Assistant City Manager Howard Lazarus said the road pavement had an impact on how people chose to get from one point to another but that these funds were primarily just maintenance, though they would work to do this in a way that was efficient for traffic flow.


Cole also inquired about $54 million committed to 12 projects that hadn’t been spent – connectors to SH 130 in partnership with Travis County. Based upon evaluation criteria, “We could see how that could float to the top if Travis County is putting in money also.” However, Cole note, the traffic anticipated on SH 130 hadn’t materialized. She wanted to know how this re-evaluated project would fit into the greater picture.


Spillar said even though the eight criteria were ranked in importance to the public, there would be a balancing act between them. He said there wasn’t an answer today to her specific project query but that it would get factored in along more than just monetary value due to the partnership. Cole said her primary concern was whether there would be the opportunity to make changes to direction if the context shifted. Spillar said he “wouldn’t know until we get there,” but it would be on his mind.


Council Member Laura Morrison wanted to make sure that the list of “gaps” was going to be online at  and requested that the reason behind each gap also be listed. Satisfied with his answers, Council voted 7-0 to approve the criteria evaluations.

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