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Proposal to change traffic rule draws fire

Friday, October 20, 2017 by Jo Clifton

The Austin Transportation Department is proposing changes to the Traffic Impact Analysis for zoning cases that observers in the development business worry could slow down the process and raise the cost of developing small commercial projects.

Transportation Department Assistant Director Annick Beaudet told City Council during Tuesday’s work session that the proposed new threshold for requiring a TIA would be 1,000 vehicle trips per day, rather than the current number of 2,000.

Beaudet said the department was also proposing to change the name to Transportation Impact Analysis, reflecting the fact that TIAs “will provide analysis for all modes of transportation.”

Changing the threshold and the name are part of the department’s proposed changes for CodeNEXT. The department, not the consultant Opticos Design Inc., is proposing the changes, Beaudet said.

Council Member Ellen Troxclair expressed concern about the proposed threshold change, asking Beaudet how much that might cost. Beaudet responded that depending on the size, a TIA could cost from $20,000 to $100,000.

In addition, Beaudet said the TIA might reveal transportation upgrades needed in the area, which the city would then ask the owner of the new development to help finance. Under the old rules, that would not be the case.

In response to a question from Troxclair, Beaudet explained that the department was proposing the change based on a study that found other cities required TIAs at the lower threshold.

Ricky De Camps of Big Red Dog, a locally owned engineering and consulting firm, estimated the average cost of a TIA at $15,000 to $40,000.

De Camps, who said his firm files about 30 development applications a month in Austin, also noted that if the TIA discovers that infrastructure close to the project is under par, the city may ask the owner of the new development to pay a disproportionate share of the cost.

He said he is concerned about the city asking for more money than would be suitable for the project’s proportionate share of the traffic. For example, De Camps said, should a 7-Eleven have to pay for a right turn lane to fix the city’s problems?

“It could cause a burden on smaller projects to have to be responsible for fixing larger regional problems, which shouldn’t be the case,” he concluded.

On the plus side, De Camps said, “It gives the city more information as to what the existing problems are in our infrastructure.” But it’s going to mean a lot more work for the Development Services Department. He predicted that the department would receive maybe 400 new TIAs a month.

“They’re going to need more staff to review them,” De Camps said. Development Services Director Rodney Gonzales asked Council to approve funding for 51 new positions, based on an analysis done as a result of the Zucker Report, which was highly critical of the length of time it took the department to process applications. Council put that request on hold in September.

Traffic engineer and consultant Kathy Smith with HDR Engineering told the Austin Monitor she had been studying this particular chapter of CodeNEXT.

“A daily trip number is really meaningless when we do a TIA,” she said. “We analyze peak hour volume,” she said. Peak hour volume is generally described as the amount of traffic that uses a particular intersection or lane of traffic during the hour when the volume is highest in that lane or intersection.

“So I would like to see the code focus on a number that makes sense to study, based on peak hour volume,” Smith said, “but further than that we have to identify how many intersections” are going to be studied.

Smith explained that the department is proposing that the traffic engineer first do a quick study of traffic distribution from the site being developed to the roadway network. So, if 75 vehicles come out and hit the first intersection, then a smaller number go through the next intersections, then finally it’s down to only 25 trips per intersection. “I think that is a good concept, but I think the number 25 trips is way too low,” she concluded.

As for the idea of requiring a TIA on projects generating just 1,000 trips per day, Smith said it will generate greater workload for staff, and more of those projects may not be viable once developers find out how much they may have to contribute for traffic improvements.

It’s in staff’s best interest to ensure that the projects in their system are viable, she said, noting that it’s also in the best interest of developers to be able to determine how much a project is going to cost earlier in the process. It’s not clear exactly how that might happen without considerable changes to the process.

The cost of any improvements mandated by the Transportation Department would be in addition to the fees it and Development Services collect to look at TIAs.

Information provided by the city shows that in the past, the city charged TIA fees based on the number of trips per day. Those costs have been increasing. For example, the cost of a TIA for zero to 5,000 trips per day increased from $1,783 in Fiscal Year 2015-16 to $2,368 in Fiscal Year 2016-17.

However, as of Oct. 1, a TIA review costs $9,417.20, according to the city’s website. The site does not differentiate between TIAs with larger and smaller numbers of trips, so it is not clear whether a smaller number of trips would cost less.

Michele Haussmann of Land Use Solutions told the Monitor she was concerned that a significant increase in the number of TIAs that city staff would have to review would mean that “staff is going to be even more overburdened.” That, in turn, would slow down the process and drive up development costs, Haussmann said.

De Camps, Haussmann and Smith all serve on the board of directors of the Real Estate Council of Austin.

Attorney David Armbrust, who has represented developers before the city for decades, told the Monitor, “Those kinds of decisions are what contribute to lack of affordability in our community,” noting that such requirements might be reasonable in an area like Hyde Park with its narrow streets, but not necessarily for other types of areas. He concluded, “It needs to make more common sense.”

Curious about how we got here? Check out the Austin Monitor’s CodeNEXT Timeline.

Photo by Larry D. Moore [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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