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Council to consider upping fine for blocking new priority bus lanes

Tuesday, January 21, 2014 by Michael Kanin

Austin City Council members will consider whether to implement significantly increased fines for vehicles parked illegally in designated transit priority lanes Thursday. The measure would allow traffic officials to impose up to a $500 fine on vehicles left in lanes set aside for Capital Metro’s soon-to-be-unveiled MetroRapid Transit system. The move is aimed squarely at clearing the way for the new service.


Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole is pushing for the enhanced penalty. “Mass transit is key to our transportation network and our success as a city, but we can only improve mobility and reduce congestion if those buses are not stuck in traffic themselves,” Cole told the Austin Monitor.


In their request for Council action, transportation officials put the matter in terms of system efficacy. “These special use lanes are necessary to provide safer and more efficient use of the corridor by the approximately 60 buses per peak hour starting in early 2014,” according to supporting documentation. The major target of the ordinance change is “any on-street parking, stopping or standing within the lane or non-transit use of the lane if not otherwise allowed by designation.”


That sort of activity is already illegal, but for transportation officials – and perhaps Council members – the current fine is not an adequate deterrent. “City ordinance…only allows this infraction to result in a parking citation of $25,” reads the request for Council action. “This is not a significant deterrent to dissuade some service commercial delivery drivers, vehicle for hire operators, and similar operators who view these citations as a cost of doing business.”


According to the city website, Capital Metro and city officials remain on track to unveil the new MetroRapid transit lines Jan. 26. The system, built with the aid of nearly $40 million in federal transit funds, will run along two routes: The 801 will extend roughly from Parmer Lane south along North Lamar Boulevard, through downtown and the University of Texas, jog east along Riverside Drive, and then continue via South Congress Avenue to Southpark Meadows.


Meanwhile, the 803 will run south from the Domain to downtown and the University where it will run parallel to the 801, and then out South Lamar Boulevard, and eventually to a Westgate stop.


As part of the system, city officials set aside “special use lanes along Guadalupe and Lavaca streets from approximately West Cesar Chavez Street to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.” Vehicles parked along those routes would be subject to the new fines.


“Designating a transit priority lane in a small portion of downtown was done with significant analysis that demonstrated that we can expect to move more people through the corridor faster than if we left it in its current arrangement,” Cole continued. “Increasing the fines for stopping or parking a motor vehicle in that lane helps accomplish that overall objective while maintaining reasonable exceptions such as yielding to emergency vehicles and executing a right turn.”


For his part, transit advocate Jace Deloney welcomed the proposed change. “This is intelligent transportation policy. I’m glad that our elected officials are considering this item, as it will help protect transit speed and reliability through downtown,” he said via email. “When MetroRapid launches next week, many automobile users will be tempted to use these transit priority lanes to bypass automobile congestion. In the absence of physically separated transit lanes, these fines are necessary to discourage that sort of behavior.


“While I’m excited about City Council’s willingness to consider this fine, these lanes will only truly give transit priority if they are properly enforced by the City of Austin. Similar laws regarding transit priority lanes in other cities have ended up ineffective due to the lack of enforcement,” he concluded.


Deloney is founder of Austinites for Urban Rail Action, a group that has pushed for an urban rail route that proceeds down Lamar Boulevard and Guadalupe Street, along some of the same real estate that will see the advent of MetroRapid transit. Officials have argued that the federal investment in bus rapid transit contributes to a problematic footing for that option.


Still, Deloney remained positive about the general picture. “For too long, we have prioritized automobiles over people in this city,” he continued. “This over-reliance of the automobile has caused unproductive land use patterns and massive traffic headaches. As a transit advocate, I would like to see a more democratic allocation of right of way. We need to keep in mind that these transit priority lanes are projected to carry twice as many people as the adjacent automobile lane. As our city continues to grow, we need to be discussing better ways to use the limited amount of space on our streets. These transit priority lanes are the beginning of that conversation.”

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