All Roads Lead to Bergstrom

Light Rail Ignored as City Airport Planners Encourage Vehicle Use

Veronica Perez, president of the Patton Ave. neighborhood association
photograph by Jana Birchum

Veronica Perez calls it "living under the belly of the beast." Perez is president of the Patton Avenue Neighborhood Association, whose members live just east of US183, about a mile north of the former Bergstrom Air Force Base. Patton Avenue residents anticipate with dread the 1999 opening of Austin's new airport at Bergstrom. Though one of Bergstrom's main runways points in their direction, most of them live just outside of the zone that airport officials say makes them eligible for financial aid to mitigate against noise from jet engines. Furthermore, 60% of the car traffic that the new airport generates will be passing within a few hundred feet of their homes as well.

"It's beginning to feel like a time bomb," says Perez. "If the traffic on 183 is already so bad now that we can't get to our homes during rush hour, what is it going to be when the airport opens?" She says that accidents average one a week on US 183 between Patton Avenue and Montopolis Bridge. Parents are afraid to let their children cross US183 on foot, which leaves their kids isolated from the rest of the community. A neighborhood appeal for a traffic light and crosswalk at the intersection of Patton Avenue and 183 was turned down by state highway engineers as being unsafe for motorists. In any event, the question of installing a traffic signal will eventually be moot because plans are to convert US183 into a freeway from Leander to Bergstrom, making it part of a giant ring of asphalt around Austin that will also include US290, SH71 and Loop360. Local traffic planners used to call this ring "the Inner Loop," and a quick glance at a map might convince a casual observer that the whole nexus was designed to provide easy freeway access through Austin to Bergstrom Airport.

Of course, everyone knows that one of the reasons for moving the airport to Bergstrom is to relieve thousands of Austin residents living in the current Mueller flightpath from the brain-numbing roar of jet engines. But the Patton Avenue quandary brings up an environmental issue that hasn't received much attention: the impact of airport-generated automobile traffic on inner city neighborhoods. A Bergstrom traffic impact analysis predicts that the airport will generate 36,000 car trips on an average day in the busiest month of opening year 1999, a figure that could double within 15 to 20 years. Most of the airport-bound trips will originate downtown and in the wealthier areas to the northwest and south-southwest. (As the traffic analysis notes, "There is a strong correlation between household income and propensity to travel by air.")

But East and close-in South Austin will bear the brunt of the traffic. The Bergstrom traffic impact analysis predicts that Ben White will carry 21% of airport-generated traffic, while East US183 takes 60%. Feeding traffic into these freeways will be Riverside Drive, Airport Boulevard, Cesar Chavez, East Fifth, and East Seventh. Because of Bergstrom's greater distance from north Austin and downtown than the more centrally located Mueller, Austinites can conservatively expect an additional 100,000 airport-generated vehicle miles traveled per day on city roads the year that Bergstrom opens.

Light Rail De-Railed?

Besides the potential for dividing neighborhoods and increasing noise and air pollution, one wing of the airport-bound freeway system is already proving to be a disaster for south Austin creeks. The US290 freeway, which connects Oak Hill to Bergstrom via Ben White, has dumped loads of silt into Barton Creek, turned stream flow in East and West Bouldin Creeks into murky sludge, and now threatens Williamson Creek and McKinney Falls with dirty runoff from a 15-foot wide drainage tunnel. Environmentalists say that some of the negative impact of airport-bound traffic on inner city neighborhoods could be spared if transportation planners would fast track plans for a light rail connection between the airport and downtown. In fact, the 25-year plan adopted by the Austin Transportation Study (ATS) states, "The relocation of the airport to a more remote location provides Austin with an excellent opportunity to establish a true intermodal facility and to get airport commuters out of the habit of relying solely on automobiles, thereby decreasing congestion on major arterials."

In spite of this community goal of reducing airport-generated automobile traffic, some critics say the New Airport Project Team has done everything possible to encourage automobile use, while pooh-poohing the potential for transit use as unimportant and impractical. For instance, though the ATS plan calls for "close integration" of transit facilities with the airport, the original Bergstrom design plans would have had light-rail passengers being dumped at the parking garage, rather than carried directly to the main terminal building. It was only after several months of negotiations between transit advocates and the airport team, and an agreement by Capital Metro to foot the bill for changing the design, that light rail was finally given a toehold in the main terminal. On the other hand, Director of Aviation Charles Gates denies that rail plans were ever slighted by the airport team. He says that the original Bergstrom design put the rail terminal in the parking garage as part of a planned "transportation center" that would have included buses and limousines, and he points out that Capital Metro officials consistently testify to the airport staff's cooperation with transit design at Bergstrom.

New Airport Team director John Almond
photograph by Jana Birchum

While no one accuses the airport team of active opposition to light rail, environmentalists have grumbled for months that the airport staff's car culture mentality threatens the long-term viability of transit. "I think the aviation department is downplaying the potential role of light rail," says Robin Cravey, aide to city councilmember Daryl Slusher. "They seem to be taking the attitude: `You've got our phone number; when you've got light rail, call us.'" Things came to a head last October when John Almond, director of the New Airport Project Team, addressed the ATS. The week before, Almond was featured in a local media blitz in which he predicted a traffic congestion crisis after the airport opens, if the ATS fails to score the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to complete the I-35/Ben White and US183/US290 freeway interchanges. "Every airport should have freeway access to its front door," Almond told the ATS. When quizzed by State Representatives Sherri Greenberg and Glen Maxey about transit's role in transporting airport passengers, Almond predicted low transit usage in Austin, citing poor light rail use at the St. Louis airport, and adding that light rail is not the airport staff's responsibility anyway.

At this point, Maxey, who represents East Austin, exploded. "If you can be a cheerleader for building more freeways, why can't you be a cheerleader for light rail?" he demanded, then added, "I think it's a philosophical problem that your bosses should take care of." Round Rock's outspoken mayor Charles Culpepper also got in on the act. "I can assure you that I will get on light rail rather than fight rush hour traffic," Culpepper told Almond. "It appears that you aren't taking light rail seriously."

Subsidizing Car Culture

Though Almond beat a hasty retreat before the ATS, protesting that he did not mean to downplay light rail, Airport Advisory Board member Dan Akins says that airport staff consistently adopts policies designed to increase automobile dominance at Bergstrom. For instance, last summer when the project team turned up a $20 million budget surplus due to lower-than-expected construction bids, it moved quickly to earmark nearly $4 million of the windfall for construction of 1,100 new parking spaces, four additional parking lot exit lanes, and a parking operations building. Another $4 million will go to build overpasses from the eventual SH71 freeway to the airport terminal, so that motorists won't have to decrease their speeds as they approach the terminal. According to Akins, "We didn't have any say in how this money was to be spent. We fought to have a say." Likewise, city council didn't find out about the $20 million windfall until after the airport staff had already mapped out plans for spending it, drawing down criticism from even the usually "micro-management"-shy Ronney Reynolds. Gates, however, says that the projects funded by the $20 million surplus had been approved three years ago and merely pushed to a back burner due to lack of money. "We didn't have to go back to council to get formal approval because we were still within the over-all appropriation process," says Gates.

Not long after the quick meltdown of the $20 million windfall, airport staff came back to city council in December requesting approval of an additional $25 million to double the size of the parking garage. This would increase covered short-term public parking from 1,400 to 2,300 spaces, and rental car spaces from 480 to 1,000. (In addition, there will be 7,150 long-term surface parking spaces and 1,000 employee parking slots, for a total of 11,450, more than double the 5,280 spaces currently available at Mueller.) Aviation department consultants warned that faster-than-predicted growth in airport usage will mean inconvenience for motorists before the year 2005 if the parking spaces aren't added.

However, Airport Advisory board member Akins notes that the requested parking capacity increase is two to three times the projected increase in passenger traffic on which it is based. Furthermore, he adds, consultant errors concerning mass transit ridership in other American airports understate Austin's potential transit ridership and overstate parking needs. Expanding the parking garage will encourage more car trips, undermining the future viability of light rail and adding to citywide congestion and pollution, says Akins. Many transportation experts say that putting a cap on parking spaces in major traffic generators like airports and downtowns is essential for the success of transit. For instance, Portland City Commissioner Earl Blumenauer credits most of his city's success with light rail to the fact that downtown parking was capped at 43,000 spaces even as downtown employment doubled from 50,000 to 100,000 jobs over the past 15 years.

On January 9, the Airport Advisory Board asked city council to delay voting on the parking garage expansion, complaining that aviation staff had made little attempt to brief them on the proposal before taking it to council in December. If the advisory board felt slighted in December, they got the full treatment at their meeting on February 25. Aviation Staff, four airport consultants flown in from San Francisco, and Assistant City Manager Joe Lessard spent five hours with charts, graphs, and statistics set up to prove that airport parking demand is on an ever-upward spiral and transit can't do a thing to help it. To set the tone for the meeting (held at Mueller Airport), all airport parking lots were full and closed, and one board member phoned in to say that he had returned home because he couldn't park his car. At the end of the marathon session, the board voted 6-1 to recommend expanding the parking garage, with a few conditions attached. Akins cast the lone dissenting vote. At the March 5 work session, council voted to approve the recommendation on first reading. (For more on the AAB's recommendations and the council's vote, see sidebar).

The Inner Loop: Plans are to convert US183 into a freeway from Leander to Bergstrom, making it part of a giant ring of asphalt around Austin that will also include US290, SH71, and Loop360.

New Airport Team director Almond professes puzzlement over criticism of the airport staff's car orientation. He says that the community has to decide whether it wants light rail, that the airport staff doesn't "make policy" to encourage alternatives to automobile use. At the same time, Almond denies that cheerleading for freeways and building excess parking capacity are "policies" adopted by airport staff, policies that, in effect, guarantee automobile dominance and sabotage the viability of alternative transportation. Such choices are not policies, but merely responses to the current demands of the traveling public, says Almond, adding that there is no current demand from the public for light rail because it hasn't been built yet.

At the crux of the issue is city and airport staff's perception that their main obligation is to airport users. Regular airport users tend to be those who can afford to live in areas that are protected from the negative impacts of transportation infrastructure, but who may not want the reduced speed and convenience of automobile access that one might reasonably expect to accompany the choice to live farther away from commercial centers and airports. The result is a crosstown freeway-based transportation system, a system subsidized on the reduced quality of life of those who live between the homes of the affluent and their destinations.

A Question of Priorities

It seems logical to expect airports to partially mitigate their traffic impacts on the community by charging fees to their users that could be used to build rapid transit to their terminals. However, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has traditionally been protective of airport-generated revenues, requiring that they be fed back into maintenance and construction projects on the airport site. At the same time, airports have depended on state and metropolitan authorities to foot the bill for transportation infrastructure that brings passengers to their gates. But because of increasing recognition of the tremendous traffic impacts of airports on cities, this attitude is changing. Last November, the FAA agreed for the first time to let revenue from airport user fees be spent on building a transit link. Newark, New Jersey's airport will use $250 million in Passenger Facility Charges (PFCs are a $3 airport charge added to each plane ticket) to build a monorail connecting the terminal to New York's rail system. Likewise, New York plans to use PFCs to fund the bulk of a $750 million rail line linking La Guardia and Kennedy Airports to metropolitan subways. This trend is likely to continue because of a policy just issued by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation on February 14 that encourages breaking down the traditional barriers between airport and metropolitan authorities on surface transportation planning.

By agreement with the FAA, Austin's PFC revenue is dedicated to funding construction of the new airport at Bergstrom. However, PFC revenue is increasing faster than predicted because of the rapid growth of Austin's air traffic. Akins believes that a city staff seriously concerned about traffic impacts created by the airport could persuade the FAA to approve some of this PFC revenue to be used on a rail link from Bergstrom to downtown. In addition, some of the revenue generated by airport concessions like parking and rental car fees could be used within the airport's boundaries to improve light-rail access to the terminal. On the other hand, the current Bergstrom strategy appears to be to maximize revenue from parking and rental cars in order to build facilities that will encourage even more automobile dependency, while leaving transit to fend for itself.

Lessard told the Airport Advisory Board on February 25 that light rail could possibly play a role in Austin's future by preventing the need for still another parking garage expansion at Bergstrom in ten years. However, Planning Commission member Dave Sullivan says the future starts now. "In the 21st century, people are going to be thinking about ways to get around besides cars," says Sullivan. "We're overestimating what the demand for parking will be 10 to 20 years from now."

Akins agrees. "We have a brand-new facility at Bergstrom, with a chance to do things right from the start," says Akins. "Are we going to continue down the corridor of a car-dependent society, or are we going to start doing things that benefit our air quality and relieve congestion? Because these are the biggest problems we have, not whether the airport makes additional money."

John Gilvar, aide to councilmember Beverly Griffith, echoes Akins' assessment that City and airport staff's motivation in pushing the expanded garage through is to generate revenues for the city over the short term. What's best for the city in the long run, he says, is not staff's concern. "They are not looking at whether our policy is to bring light rail to the airport -- even though the city adopted a transportation plan demanding it," Gilvar says. "[City and airport staff] is fulfilling their obligation to make money -- `Hey, if we build a garage they'll pay to park.'" But council's obligation, adds Gilvar, is to enact the will of Austin residents, many of whom are concerned about traffic impacts at the new airport.

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