Friday, June 7, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

County Transportation Blueprint: So many projects, so few dollars

Between the city’s ambitious new mobility plan and the region’s transportation vision into 2040, Travis County is now working on prioritizing its own transportation goals for the next 30 years.

The Commissioners Court approved a draft of the Transportation Blueprint in November 2018. Recently, the court kicked off a more aggressive public engagement process to help the county discern which of the plan’s numerous road, active transportation and partnership projects should receive county dollars in the coming decades.

In a discussion with the Pedestrian Advisory Council on Monday, Cathy Stephens of the county’s Transportation and Natural Resources department clarified that less than half of the projects identified in the plan could possibly be funded within 30 years, especially now that tax revenue caps are a reality.

Going forward, Stephens said, the county has predicted a budget of $1.93 billion for project funding from now until 2045, not including present commitments. Based on the results of the public engagement process, she said, the county will have to decide which projects should receive funds and which will be marked for later with preserved right of way.

Since cities are charged with managing their own transportation projects, the blueprint is primarily concerned with addressing transportation needs in the 63 percent of Travis County that remains unincorporated.

As Scheleen Walker, long-range planning manager with TNR, explained Monday, counties are not obligated by the state to build roads and can solve their transportation goals how they please.

The county is leveraging that freedom in the public engagement process by giving all Travis County residents an opportunity to say whether that money should be used on road or active transportation projects or if it should be funneled into partnerships with organizations like the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority to build park-and-ride facilities in different parts of the county.

Walker said the public could decide that the money should go to such partnerships to provide more transportation options to the roughly 30 percent of people who drive into the city of Austin to work every day. She clarified, though, that neither the state nor cities are going to build or expand local roads in those unincorporated areas on the county’s behalf.

“You wouldn’t be able to get from Manor into the city of Austin if it weren’t for the county building roadways that connect to cities,” she said.

The projects in the blueprint have been created in coordination with other transportation projects in the 21 municipalities within the county. Several of the bicycle paths and trails featured in the map, for example, are meant to serve as connectors filling gaps in the city’s own bicycle plan.

The plan has also taken into consideration potential state highway projects and Capital Metro’s Project Connect vision in an attempt to best leverage limited funds by working with other regional efforts.

The majority of comments in the plan’s first phase of public engagement agreed that traffic management improvements and roadway expansions were preferable to building new roads. The county stayed with that consensus in creating the blueprint, proposing relatively few new road projects.

According to Charlie Watts, TNR planning project manager, most of the projects are limited in scope, focusing primarily on safety improvements to intersections and sometimes adding no more than two lanes.

PAC Member Adam Greenfield introduced the concept of induced demand into the conversation, questioning whether traffic management improvements that alleviate congestion could have a similar long-term effect as road expansions, worsening the region’s transportation problems in the future.

Stephens said the idea is mostly to alleviate “big bottleneck dangerous situations” that have already become commonplace due to the rate of growth in the area.

Weighing in on the matter, Chair Jay Crossley said it’s possible to fix dangerous roadways and intersections without making them wider and creating room for more traffic.

Transportation and Natural Resources welcomes comments from all county residents via its online survey.

Those interested can also watch last month’s virtual town hall on the blueprint with Stephens, Walker and Watts here.

Photo by Eric Fredericks made available through a Creative Commons license.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Pedestrian Advisory Council: A citizen council that reviews and recommends initiatives for walking in the city.

Project Connect: This project brought together a series of Central Texas transportation agencies looking to build high-capacity transit options in the region in the wake of CAMPO's 2035 regional transportation plan. The City of Austin's much-discussed 2014 Urban Rail plan was part of Project Connect's efforts.

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