Austin — National model for how roads are strangling transit development31 October 2016
For decades, Road Warriors (aggressive proponents of roadway expansion) and other transit critics have disparaged America’s urban public transportation for its daily ridership levels amounting to just a small fraction of total metro area trips. In contrast, the vigorous ongoing expansion of urban roadway systems, outwardly sprawling development patterns, and levels of motor vehicle ownership has eclipsed transit development.
Of course, it’s widely recognized that much of the value of public transit resides in its function as a relief for the heavily congested passenger flows during daily peak hours and at other times, such as during special events – and this is where the high capacity of rail transit certainly excels. Nevertheless, it’s true that urban public transport needs to perform as much more than merely a subsidiary mode for peak traffic relief. Transit development has remained stunted in U.S. cities for decade after decade, well behind its role in comparable cities abroad, such as those in Europe, Asia, and Australia.
For Austin, “green” means “green camouflage”
Why is this? Public policy in Austin – a city that touts itself as embracing “green” principles and a commitment to public transport – illustrates how (despite decades of verbiage) the municipal and regional civic leadership and political establishment have maintained a commitment to prioritizing motor vehicle transport and roadway expansion.
From the Austin Tomorrow program of the 1970s to Envision Central Texas in the early 2000s to the more recent Imagine Austin community planning programs, community forums, official resolutions, and dozens of reports and pronouncements have solemnly affirmed a supposed dedication to more modern urbanist principles and public transport to provide the infrastructure for them. Yet time and time again, actual policy has funneled the heavy funding and other resources into further roadway development, and the continuation of suburban and rural sprawl development patterns.
The reality is: For Austin, “green” means green camouflage for major policies that are de facto harmful to the environment and quality of life. Austin actually serves as a model of how this commitment to prioritizing roads is strangling the development of adequate and fully effective public transport.
“Extravaganza” of roadway development
Ongoing roadway expansion doesn’t mean merely the addition of more lanes to existing highways. For the past half-century or more, it would be difficult to find a period in the Austin area when brand-new major highways have not been under construction.
This incessant extravaganza of roadway development includes: I-35 and then its double-decking; the “MoPac” (Loop 1) freeway; the development of the Ed Bluestein expressway; the conversion of Research Blvd. into a new freeway; the development of the Loop 360 expressway; the conversion of Ben White Blvd. into a new freeway; the development of the U.S. 290 East freeway. In more recent years, the construction of the SH 130 tollway; the 183-A tollway; the SH 45 tollway (north). And currently, the “MoPac” (Loop 1) reconstruction and tollway (HOT lanes) project; the 183 South (Bergstrom Expressway) tollway and expressway expansion project; the SH 45SW tollway; the SH 71 Express tollway project (between ABIA and SH 130); and the “MoPac” (Loop 1) South reconstruction and tollway (HOT lanes) project. And, of course, much more to come later – such as the mammoth overhaul of I-35 being planned by TxDOT. (See map at top of post.)
Meanwhile, over the entire lifetime of Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, since the agency’s inception in the mid-1980s, the one major capital investment transit project implemented has been MetroRail, currently operating a relatively tiny six-car system carrying less than 3,000 rider-trips a day. And in that same roughly 30-year period, the City of Austin and other local agencies have been siphoning off funds out of the transit agency’s basic revenue stream (generally ranging between 10-25%) to pay for roadway projects. For example, CMTA funding paid for most of the Build Greater Austin urban roadway program (over $93.4 million) and contributed heavily ($29.5 million) to the purchase of tollroad right-of-way for SH 45 and MoPac (Loop 1) into Williamson County north of Parmer Lane. (See Note at end of post.)
CAMPO boosts roads, dumps transit project
A powerful influence in the skewing of transportation policy toward road-focused priorities undoubtedly lies with the region’s major transportation planning body. Today, most large-scale transportation project funding decisions are made by CAMPO (Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization), now heavily biased in its structure toward suburban, exurban, and rural segments of the metro area.
In public comments to a Sep. 12th meeting of the agency, veteran transportation researcher and activist Roger Baker criticized CAMPO for being “heavily skewed to the suburban areas.” Another community activist, Jay Blazek Crossley, provided CAMPO board members with copies of a study he had completed highlighting disparities in democratic and demographic representation within CAMPO. As described in a report by Caleb Pritchard in the Sep. 15th Austin Monitor,
Crossley found that Travis County residents make up 57 percent of CAMPO’s six-county population. However, only 45 percent of TPB members come from Travis County communities.
More details of Crossley’s report can be found in the Streetsblog article «How Unrepresentative Is Your Regional Planning Agency?»
But in what almost was an act of chutzpah, at that same Sep. 12th meeting the CAMPO board voted to even further reduce Austin and Travis County representation in the strategic Technical Advisory Committee. Baker denounced the action as a “step backwards”.
While reorganizing itself to accelerate its programs for highway expansion and further regional sprawl development (see Roger Baker’s Feb. 2015 analysis), the CAMPO board moved to cancel its support for the region’s single new rail passenger project, Lone Star Rail (LSTAR). For approximately the past 15 years, this project had spent millions of dollars planning a regional rail passenger line to connect Round Rock, Austin, San Marcos, New Braunfels, and San Antonio with fast regional commuter-style trains.
The ultimate plan involved a swap with the Union Pacific Railroad (UP), which would sell its right-of-way and infrastructure to LSTAR in exchange for the agency providing new right-of-way and track along a route miles to the east. In addition to high-quality regional rail transit service, the plan would have eliminated the rail transport of hazardous cargo through the heart of center-city Austin.
But the plan was jeopardized when the UP reneged on its agreement in early 2016. Rather than stepping up to campaign for LSTAR and bring pressure on the UP to reinstate the deal, local officials – including those on CAMPO – did basically nothing, leaving LSTAR to hang by itself. In the end, even supposedly “progressive” liberal representatives from Austin and Travis County essentially sat on their hands, allowing the UP and CAMPO destruction of LSTAR to proceed without a fight. No champion, “progressive” or otherwise, stepped forward to tangibly defend the agency and this vital project. In the final CAMPO vote to withdraw support, there was not a single vote in opposition.
“Go Big” $720 million road bond measure
This background of a road-focused urban and regional mobility perspective is the context for the City of Austin’s “Go Big” campaign for a $720 million “Mobility Bond” package (to be financed by a hefty increase in local property taxes). This past summer, several “progressive” members of the City Council virtually led the charge to thwart efforts to add an urban rail starter line project to the package.
To sweeten the package in hopes of seducing some community support, the City added a smattering of funding for “alternative mobility” sidewalk and bicycle projects, and tried to portray the “Smart Corridors” road projects as somehow models of New Urbanism. The sweeteners worked – a number of community pro-pedestrian, cycling, neighborhood, and New Urbanist-aligned groups have jumped on board to support the bond campaign. (To her credit, liberal District 1 Councilmember Ora Houston has steadfastly opposed the bond package.)
But the basic thrust of the bond proposal has always been road expansion and improvements to facilitate motor vehicle traffic. From the outset, the program was sold as a way to “increase traffic throughput”. The ads for the bond package sponsored by Move Austin Forward (the primary campaign organization) focus on the benefits to cars, with slogans like “Cut Travel Time” and “Move Traffic Faster”.
Noting recent news reports that the City hopes to procure federal matching grants to balloon the road bond funding into a massive $1.5 billion roadbuilding mega-program, Roger Baker commented
This makes it pretty clear that [Austin Mayor] Adler’s bond package is essentially top-down, business as usual road politics. This as opposed to a cost-effective engineering solution to some well-defined transportation problem or approach. Austin can’t possibly pave its way out of congestion by raising property taxes, and a truly smart city wouldn’t try.
This unceasing emphasis on unending roadway development continues to receive the overwhelming majority of funding. Especially on the local level, massive bond funding measures for roads such as the current $720 million “Mobility Bond” proposal have the effect of using up more and more of the available funding “oxygen” in the region and the city.
The Austin area’s continual expansion of roadways simultaneously fosters greater dependency on personal motor vehicles for local travel, and encourages more and more outwardly sprawling development patterns. These development patterns in turn necessitate increasing dependency on personal motor vehicle transportation. In a vicious spiral, taken together, more motor vehicles, greater dependency on them, and spreading sprawl further contribute to strangling the potential of public transport and opportunities to extend services and make them more effective.
Altogether, transit continues to be strangled, with no relief in sight. And if you wonder why transit ridership continues to be surpassed by traffic – despite mounting congestion – perhaps you can better understand a big part of the reason why.
NOTE: This article as originally posted stated that Capital Metro funds were used to purchase right-of-way for the SH 130 tollroad. However, ARN has not been able to verify this. Instead, evidence definitely indicates that Capital Metro funds were allocated to other tollroad projects, as indicated in the text.