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City looking for quick congestion fixes in upcoming bond election

Monday, March 12, 2012 by Kimberly Reeves

Austin’s Transportation Department is looking for the biggest bang for its buck with short-term projects in the upcoming bond issue, Gary Schatz told a committee of the Bond Election Advisory Task Force at a recent meeting.


Given Austin’s preoccupation with its ongoing congestion from Interstate 35 to MoPac to US 290, managing expectations can be tough, said Schatz, who is assistant director of the department. This bond issue is expected to address a five- to seven-year horizon.


“We have to recognize our roads won’t get any bigger. We have a few gaps here and there where we can expand, but for the most part, our roads and our intersections are what they are,” Schatz said. “We have to manage our roads and our intersections better. We also have to manage the expectations of all of our stakeholders and look for collaborations to leverage our resources.”


Six of the state’s top 50 congested corridors are located in Austin, with Interstate 35 hitting No. 4 on the list. Other problem arterials are no surprise: North Lamar, MoPac, Loop 360, US 290W and South Lamar.


The key for Interstate 35 emphasizes short-term relief, Schatz said.


“We’re realizing that the corridor is what the corridor is, and I think if we’re going to have to take the biggest ‘ask’ to the community of burying Interstate 35, then we have to do everything else that we can to make it work,” Schatz said. “We have $50 million for partnering with other agencies, and I just heard last week we had another $2 billion statewide for projects in the four most congested areas: Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio and Austin.”


Already the Texas Department of Transportation has been earmarked for $31 million to explore how to address the congestion issues on Interstate 35. Last year, a state study suggested that Austin swap Interstate 35 and State Highway 130, naming SH 130 the area’s interstate. That was met with a tepid response from the city’s bond committee.


“We’re driving longer and we’re living longer, and our population continues to increase,” Schatz said. “We don’t have the ability to build our way out of congestion in the region and nationally there is not the money to do it.”


The city’s corridor planning process, approved in the last bond issue, target Lamar, Burnet, Airport, FM 969 and Riverside. Larger project such as MoPac and Loop 360 are interagency projects being completed with the assistance of the Texas Department of Transportation and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority. Additional roads are being widened in partnerships with Travis County.


Matching bond priorities to the goals of the city’s impending comprehensive plan also is a priority of the Transportation Department. Austin has identified 128 locations for pedestrian-vehicle crashes. Of that total, 60 percent are at intersections. Of those intersections, 90 percent are signalized.

Committee members offered a variety of comments on the proposal: Jennifer McPhail, who advocates for the disabled community, pushed for more specific costs on the projects being proposed, saying she couldn’t make a cost-benefit analysis until she was clear how much each project cost.


McPhail also wanted to see how the specifics of the current project proposals dovetailed with the transportation goals of the last bond issue.


“I want you to give me an idea of how these projects complement each other,” McPhail said. “If we talk about improving North Lamar, what are those plans going to cost and how are they complemented by what we’ve already started to do in terms of infrastructure. It should complement the work we’ve already done.”


Schatz said more specifics would come with the next layer of information from the Transportation Department.


Former Supreme Court Justice Craig Enoch pointed to the east-west connectivity issues in the city’s road system. Improving Interstate 35 and MoPac would be meaningless of the roads between them were clogged.


The city is seeking lower cost options, Schatz said, to address those issues, such as making Brazos and Colorado two-way streets. On Loop 360, which is landlocked, the so-called Michigan left is being considered, which would allow multiple lanes to turn in sequence and decrease traffic congestion.


Other priorities will include 20 additional on-demand pedestrian hybrid beacons, like the one in front of the Austin Energy Building, plus updated intersection signals, additional sidewalks and a round of traffic calming devices.

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