Then There's This: The Road to Fewer Roads
Can the latest in intersection design fix Austin's gridlock?
Transportation agencies are laying plans to expand South MoPac and build underpasses at two busy intersections – one at Slaughter Lane, and another to its south at LaCrosse Avenue.
Anyone who's ventured southwest for a movie at the Alamo Drafthouse is familiar with the teeming traffic and long waits at the Slaughter intersection. So, will expanding South MoPac from Cesar Chavez and erecting bridges over MoPac on Slaughter and LaCrosse ease the congestion? Or will we end up with more of the same, only worse?
If you're a little wary of the two agencies behind these proposed projects – the Texas Department of Transportation and the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization – then you've probably already connected the dots between the proposed MoPac-related projects and State Highway 45. It makes sense that South MoPac improvements would be necessary to accommodate SH 45, but transportation officials, for whatever reason, are treating the two plans as two distinct projects that have nothing to do with the other.
SH 45 would link South MoPac (there's the first clue) to FM 1626 in Hays County. Proponents hope to jump-start the toll road before a new anti-SH 45 regime is seated on the Travis County Commissioners Court and sticks a fork in the road plan. But as the next presumptive Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt told the Chronicle recently: "I cannot yet say how I will respond [to the project] since there are still so many 'known unknowns' ... and I doubt we've seen the final price tag for the project." That was said in response to the Commissioners' vote in March to spend $15 million in county dollars toward the $100 million project. "This I do know," she continued, "Travis County has just paid property taxes for the construction of a tolled state highway over a critical recharge zone and endangered species habitat. This is wrong on multiple levels."
Needless to say, there's plenty of environmental and neighborhood angst over SH 45, and opponents have organized under the name Keep MoPac Local. Not only would SH 45 cross the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone, it would add tens of thousands of additional vehicles each day to MoPac, which is currently undergoing a redesign north of the river. Led by the Save Our Springs Alliance, SH 45 opponents have put their money where their nay-saying mouths are and hired a Utah-based transportation consultant to come up with some alternatives to building new roads and bridges. The consultant, Mike Brown, president of Metro Analytics, was in Austin last week, where he presented some "shared-solutions" ideas to a crowd that appeared to be dominated by mayoral and City Council aspirants (see "Creative Intersections," Newsdesk, April 26 for more). To be clear, the city has little formal say in the SH 45 project, but with the "right" people on Council under the new 10-1 governing system, the city could conceivably raise a symbolic stink – something it hasn't done up to this point (though they did remove the SH 45 plan from the Imagine Austin comprehensive plan).
And Brown's ideas for moving traffic more quickly and more cheaply through "innovative intersections" actually harmonizes better with the city's Imagine Austin vision of a multimodal future. Brown mostly focused his talk on the Slaughter/MoPac intersection, offering several alternatives that, at least on paper, sure beat building bridges. As a former transportation bureaucrat himself, Brown said he understands the traffic engineer's instinct to overstate future traffic problems and underestimate solutions.
Based on an unscientific traffic count that he cautioned would need to be verified, Brown said planners would be able to buy themselves a little time simply by adjusting the signal timing at the Slaughter/MoPac intersection. "But what if the same cars could drive slower, travel faster on fewer lanes?" he asked before launching into several different intersection options. These included a "bow-tie" thru-turn intersection, which would eliminate the left-turn signal and direct left-turning traffic to turn right, make a U-turn around an ellipse, merge with oncoming traffic and continue through the intersection – all surprisingly more quickly than a signal would allow. Brown said this could be accomplished at MoPac/Slaughter with some road-widening work. "Everybody wins on that design," he said of the bow-tie's "place-making" abilities that allow for landscaping, sidewalks, bike lanes, and even a transit station.
Another example is the continuous-flow intersection that allows traffic to move simultaneously in varying directions. "It looks really gnarly but it works well," he said, though it's less friendly to pedestrians and bicyclists. A town center intersection, another alternative, would convert two-way streets into one-way streets near the intersection, then merge them back to two-way – creating safer streets for walkers and cyclists, and greater mixed-used density within the town center site.
In the end, Brown had most of his audience sold on the idea that new roads and bridges aren't the be-all and end-all of traffic solutions. "Insist on something else," he said.