The Austin Chronicle

Top 10 Transportation Stories

By Lee Nichols, January 7, 2011, News

1) METRORAIL LAUNCHES! Two years behind schedule and after a few false starts and a late switch of operational contractors, Capital Metro's commuter line to Leander got rolling March 22. The long ordeal of bringing passenger rail to Austin finally came to an end ...

2) NOBODY GETS ON! ... and the ordeal of getting people to ride began. Critics warned that the Red Line didn't take anyone where they actually wanted to go, as it terminates at the southeast corner of Downtown rather than near major employers, and it only runs at rush hour. After the first couple of weeks of free fares and curiosity trips, ridership settled to around 800-900 riders per day, less than half of Cap Metro's forecast.

3) CAP METRO FARES: DOWN FOR RAIL RIDERS, UP FOR EVERYONE ELSE Cap Metro critics charged that money spent on commuter rail and suburban "choice riders" took limited funds from services for central city residents dependent on transit – a perception further reinforced by a November "restructuring" of fares. Although still low compared to those of some transit-agency peers, prices rose for the disabled, the elderly, and bus-pass users, while rail fares came down.

4) BIKE BOULEVARD WOBBLES SIDEWAYS Grand visions of turning Nueces Street into a safe north-south avenue through Downtown for bicyclists of all abilities hit the brakes when Nueces business owners objected. A compromise (and planned work on a sewer line) moved proposed traffic-calming devices to Rio Grande, while Nueces ended up with only bike lanes and "sharrows."

5) BONDED MOBILITY Despite opposition stating that too much money was aimed at alternative transportation while not enough was intended for roads, Austin voters – mostly in the central city – passed a $90 million package that finally gives more than lip service to things other than the automobile. Note: Most of the money is still road-bound.

6) URBAN RAIL DETRAINED Conspicuously absent from the bond package was urban rail. Early in the prep, hopes were high for a central-city rail circulator, but in March, City Council decided there were too many unanswered questions and punted a rail vote until next November at the earliest.

7) WATSON'S THE ONE Tired of its rep as a Mickey Mouse operation, the board of directors plucked Orlando for its new CEO/President Linda S. Watson. The Texas native returned home with 25 years of transportation experience, including six as head of Orlando's LYNX transportation system. She inherits an agency struggling for financial viability, trying to boost flagging ridership on rail, dealing with an unhappy labor union, and hoping to improve a rock-bottom public image. Have fun, Linda!

8) SUNSET COMMISSION SHADOWS CAP METRO CEO Watson did receive a road map. At the request of state Sen. Kirk Watson, the state Sunset Advisory Commission audit provided a menu of needed changes: "[W]ith little money left in reserve and sales tax revenues down, Capital Metro's overspending cannot be sustained," read the report. "We view this report not as a recommendation but as marching orders," replied board Chair Mike Martinez.

9) DEWHURST TAKES CARONA'S KEYS AWAY In March, Dallas Republican Sen. John Carona, chair of the Transportation & Homeland Security Committee, pointed out that Texas' looming transportation funding crisis has an easy answer: Just raise the gasoline tax, which has been stuck at 20 cents per gallon since 1991. Oops – raising taxes is GOP heresy. In July, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst mysteriously removed Carona from the committee.

10) TRANSIT-ORIENTED DEVELOPMENT DOESN'T When voters approved commuter rail in 2004, city planners had visions of dense, multiuse projects around the stations transforming Austin's development future. Unfortunately, the line launched just as the economy crashed – enter stations with rows of empty retail spots, while other stations look like native grassland restoration projects.

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