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Capacity, regional cooperation take center stage at transportation forum

Wednesday, October 12, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

Standing beside four other representatives from local and regional governments on Tuesday, Mike Heiligenstein of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority declared that Central Texas has to build its way out of congestion.

“We cannot solve our problem without adding capacity in every sector of the region. Not just Austin, but the entire region,” Heiligenstein said, adding that he meant lanes not just for cars but also for transit. “‘Capacity,’ ‘capacity,’ ‘capacity’ are the new three words that matter the most.”

The message contradicts one held by an increasing number of local leaders, including Mayor Steve Adler, whose 2014 campaign website points out that “the studies say that we cannot build our way out of congestion.”

However, Heiligenstein’s position went undisputed by his four co-panelists at the Real Estate Council of Austin event where he delivered his remarks. The luncheon discussion, which focused on mobility policy, also included the Texas Department of Transportation’s Bruce Byron; Will Conley, chair of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization; Beverly Silas, vice chair of the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority; and John-Michael Vincent Cortez, special assistant to Adler.

One point that carried open consensus was the argument for unified regional planning. Both Byron and Conley said collaboration is crucial for the proposed transformation of Interstate 35.

“TxDOT cannot do this by ourselves. It will require CAMPO, the city, the RMA, Capital Metro working together to accomplish what needs to be done,” Byron said. “We’re working harder to build a smarter I-35.”

Cortez pointed out that some of the projects envisioned in Adler’s $720 million mobility bond proposal will achieve their aim only if the city’s money can successfully be leveraged to attract investments from other agencies.

“There’s probably very little we could accomplish with $40 million or so on (Loop) 360,” Cortez said, referencing the plan’s proposed allocation for infrastructure on the West Austin highway. “But if we take that money and (TxDOT) coughs up some, we can make some incredible things happen on 360.”

Cortez said the same holds true for the work at FM 620 and FM 2222 that is identified in the bond proposal.

Silas said that Capital Metro plans to take advantage of the bond investments, should voters approve them. She cited the millions of dollars earmarked for sidewalk and bicycle infrastructure, some of which could go in along several key corridors across the city.

“Also on those major corridors, there are bus pullouts so that when a bus stops at a stop, traffic can continue to go,” Silas added, identifying one of the plan’s features that Capital Metro planners have been less than enthusiastic about.

One of those planners took to Twitter on Tuesday afternoon to offer his own appraisal of Heiligenstein’s quest for more capacity. Todd Hemingson, Capital Metro vice president of strategic planning and development, wrote from his personal account, “Capacity is but one part of the solution & unsustainable in every way if only focused on maintaining current auto-dependent patterns.”

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