Big Money for Big Roads
Deciding how the Mobility Bond is spent on Austin's most traveled streets
Before Election Day in 2016, when the $720 million Mobility Bond was still but a glint in Mayor Steve Adler's eye, questions were already mounting about how city staff would allocate and actually put to use such a significant amount of money. The cash is divided into three pots; the largest being $482 million for both revamping nine of the city's major thoroughfares and conducting preliminary engineering and design work on eight other stretches of road. Spread throughout the city, the nine corridors represented five years of study and community engagement. But that work found that the projects would need roughly $1.4 billion to complete, which the bond package wouldn't come close to fulfilling. So how would staff decide what to prioritize?
The city's Corridor Program Office, created to oversee implementation, has help in that arena from the "contract with voters" that City Council approved before the bond election. The legally binding document serves as a guide for staff, and promised that staff would, by implementing the funds, prioritize congestion, multi-modal transportation service, connectivity, and transit service. Beyond that, the project is guided by a slate of "community considerations," including preservation and development of affordable housing, preservation of local business, mixed-income housing, and pedestrian access and safety.
If that all sounds like a lot of consultant speak, you're not alone – but those principles are what resulted in the proposed Corridor Construction Program that Council will review next month. The program lays out the nitty-gritty: things like where to place new pedestrian hybrid beacons or bike lanes, or which traffic signals need improvements. Sara Behunek, the CPO's public information specialist, noted that the improvements span the entire length of the corridors. "These huge swaths of very important roadways for people using all modes of transportation," she said, "I think there's really a lot there for people to like."
The effort took work on the part of at least 30 staffers working at a breakneck speed for much of the last year, through weekends and even traditionally observed holidays. The Transportation Department, Watershed Protection Department, Planning and Zoning Department, and Austin Energy all contributed to the work. Staff estimates that the improvements suggested in the report should reduce the average delay times for vehicles by 25%, bring the city's crash rate down by 15%, and address 13 of the city's most dangerous intersections. The city is also trying to get the missing billion dollars funded through grants and partnerships with other entities such as TxDOT.
Despite those initial numbers, local transportation and safety advocates have mixed opinions about the proposal. Urban planner and Vision Zero ATX member Heyden Black Walker told me that while the elements it puts into place are important, the plan doesn't call for the complete overhaul these "deadly" streets truly require. She acknowledged there remains a lot of work for staff to do filling in the initial proposal, but believes too much of the status quo will remain after the work is done. Rather than make surface-level changes to streets that were built specifically for cars, Walker hoped for an approach that would fundamentally change how roads serve all travelers. She referenced the city's contract with voters, which emphasizes pedestrian safety and a holistic approach to transit. "To me, we've got to keep going back to that core value statement, and we can't let engineering design standards override that," she said. "Especially when, in my opinion, some of those standards are outdated. I think we should do what we said we're going to do."
Walker said she's particularly concerned about the city's current 40 mile-per-hour design speed for the corridors. Vision Zero estimates that a pedestrian hit at that speed has a roughly 10% chance of survival. Designing roads with those speeds wastes an opportunity to improve on those bleak odds. As Walker's fellow transportation advocate Jay Blazek Crossley put it, "It'd be a disaster to spend $400 million on unsafe roads."
Those weren't the only questions raised about the proposal. Local urbanist group AURA started a petition to demand dedicated transit lanes on Guadalupe. Those lanes are included in the Guadalupe Corridor Improvement Program, released last December, but didn't make it into this round of the implementation process due to funding constraints. "With so much data and so many plans calling for extended transit priority on Guadalupe, AURA was disappointed to see that the Draft Corridor Construction Plan, which will determine how funds from the 2016 Mobility Bond are spent, does not include transit priority lanes along the Drag, other than a small contraflow section between 18th Street and MLK," reads the petition. Board chair Susan Somers said the group expects Capital Metro's sweeping plan for high-capacity transit in Austin (Project Connect) to recommend the Guadalupe lanes. If that's the case, AURA has a hard time understanding why they aren't a priority. "So are they really coordinating?" she asked rhetorically. "It's hard to tell. Will Project Connect come out and then they rework everything they've talked about? I don't know. But it starts to make me feel uneasy."
City Council will consider the proposal next month. In the meantime, the CPO is making the rounds on various city commissions, including a Feb. 27 appearance before the Hispanic/Latino Quality of Life Resource Advisory Commission. If Council gives it the OK next month, staff will continue the implementation process, which they hope to have completed within eight years.
Proposed Corridor Construction Program
The corridors on which improvements are eligible for construction are shown in orange. In addition, the city will be doing preliminary engineering and design work to develop Corridor Mobility Plans for those corridors shown in green, plus preliminary and design work on the corridors shown in blue.
1) North Lamar Boulevard
2) Burnet Road
3) Airport Boulevard
4) East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard
5) South Lamar Boulevard
6) East Riverside Drive
7) Guadalupe Street
8) William Cannon Drive
9) Slaughter Lane
Corridor Plan (green)
10) North Lamar Boulevard
11) East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard
12) South Congress Avenue
13) Manchaca Road
14) South Pleasant Valley Road
Preliminary Design (blue)
15) West Rundberg Lane
16) East Rundberg Lane
17) Colony Loop Drive
See the full Corridor Construction Program at data.austintexas.gov/stories/s/gukj-e8fh.