Implementing the Mobility Bond and Corridor Construction Program, if You Can Wait for It
It's going to take a long, long time
If you live and drive in Austin, traffic congestion is one of your problems. And no matter what we do, driving here will most likely continue to be an issue. The city is too big, too populated, for driving around town to be easy.
But if there's a way for 1 million people to live harmoniously and still be able to commute to work at the posted speed limits, no other American city has figured out how to do it. In fact, according to a recent study by transportation analysis firm INRIX, Austin drivers in 2017 spent less time in traffic than their counterparts in 13 different cities: Los Angeles; New York City; Washington, D.C.; San Francisco; Boston; Atlanta; Miami; Seattle; Chicago; Portland, Ore.; San Diego; Houston; and Dallas. Still, while traffic is part of any growing, prosperous city, Austin's current congestion is unsustainable, and if the city doesn't make meaningful changes to provide residents with alternatives to single-occupancy vehicles, the situation will only get worse.
That's where 2016's Mobility Bond comes in. In case you forgot, voters that November approved a $720 million investment into the city's transportation infrastructure. The bond does something for everybody: $101 million for regional road projects; $137 million for local mobility initiatives, like sidewalks, urban trails, and bike lanes; and perhaps most important, $482 million to overhaul nine of the city's largest transportation corridors, with improvements geared toward all modes of transportation: biking, driving, walking, and public transit.
Eighteen months since voters approved the bond, not much has changed on Austin roads. Besides a few sidewalks and curb ramps, there's nothing on the ground that the average person would notice. Behind the scenes, however, city employees have been working to determine how best to spend the money, particularly the chunk earmarked for corridors. Should Guadalupe get a dedicated bus lane? What part of South Lamar should see protections for commuting bikers? Does Slaughter Lane need any new pavement? The $482 million isn't nearly enough to cover the $1.4 billion of needs that Transportation staff has estimated exist on the nine corridors, so deciding what to do is tough.
A key part of the decision process was cleared at the end of April, when City Council approved the Corridor Construction Program, which outlines the changes sought on each corridor, from intersection improvements to new sidewalks, bike lanes, and fresh pavement. And yet it'll still be a long time before most of the major initiatives are underway. In the coming months, staff will conduct preliminary engineering and, beginning in the fall, hold public meetings to solicit feedback from residents about what they'd like to see happen. Most of the construction will take place between 2021 and 2024. What's happening right now – process, procedure, and planning – offers a glimpse into how the bond money will be spent, and what kind of changes you can expect on future commutes.
The Little Stuff That's Been Done
Nothing major has happened with the $720 million. What has occurred is municipal government at its quaintest, like curb ramps on Yaupon and Cassia, a block away from Laurel Mountain Elementary in Northwest Austin, for $15,000. That project was part of the $27.5 million earmarked for Safe Routes to School, an initiative to enhance infrastructure that will make it safer for kids to walk or bike to school. Similar projects have been completed for routes near eight other elementary schools: Blazier, Wooten, Spicewood, Davis, Gullett, Harris, Highland Park, and Langford.
Safe Routes is one part of the $137 million "Local Mobility" program that's focused on pedestrian and bike improvements. Nine other small-scale sidewalk, bikeway, and intersection projects have also been completed. Last summer new sidewalks were installed along Loyola between Manor Road and Northeast Drive, and on Manor Road from Reicher to Walnut Hills, for $604,000. The only completed bike project is a $96,000 shared-use path at the intersection of St. Elmo and South First.
Eighteen other local mobility projects are currently under construction or have already been completed. The biggest allocates $2.17 million toward "intersection safety improvements" at Pleasant Valley and Elmont: left turn lanes on Pleasant Valley, center medians, and a shared-use path for bicyclists and pedestrians. Also notable is the $1.46 million going toward sidewalk improvements in Brentwood, and the $1.1 million of upgrades to South Congress, including new center medians, protected bike lanes, upgraded pedestrian ramps, and modifications to existing driveways, "for better access management."
The more exciting local mobility projects are mostly still in the design phase; construction won't begin for a few years. Shovels should hit the ground in the fall of 2020 on an urban trail connecting the MoPac Bicycle Bridge project to Southwest Parkway. With $6.5 million from the bond, along with some funding from other sources, ATD reckons it could connect the trail to Boston Lane. If it can find another couple million dollars, the city hopes to extend it all the way to Industrial Oaks. Construction should also begin around that time on a $6.75 million urban trail to run along Country Club Creek between Elmont and East Oltorf. Another $5 million has been set aside to build a trail along Cap Metro's Red Line at the end of 2021. It will connect to the existing Northern Walnut Creek Trail and run to Braker. The city is also hoping to start work at the end of 2019 on extending the existing Northern Walnut Creek Trail from Walnut Creek Metro Park to I-35. However, the bond only provides about half of the estimated $5 million cost. Without more money, the city may settle for extending the trail to Cedarbrook Court.
A Long Way to Go for the Corridors
"Corridors" refer to the city's biggest, most important roads. The centerpiece of the bond is $482 million aimed at improvements on nine of them: Airport, South Lamar, North Lamar, Burnet Road, Guadalupe, William Cannon, East Riverside, East MLK, and Slaughter. The goal, Mayor Steve Adler has said, is to turn them into "Smart Corridors" that are designed to maximize safety and minimize delay. In some cases that means sexy new technology, such as traffic signals whose behavior is dictated by the traffic conditions at any given moment. In other cases it means better street design, including bus pull-outs, street medians, and new left turn lanes.
Since the bond's approval, staff has focused mainly on gathering information and community input to develop the corridor plans that Council approved. It will still be one to three years before the corridor projects are shovel-ready. While some corridor work may start as early as 2020, the Transportation Department has indicated that most of it will take place between 2021 and 2024.
Sidewalks will eventually extend the length of all nine targeted corridors, and each should include some type of bike infrastructure: a painted bike lane on the road at least, while certain roads (or sections of roads) will get something even closer to New Urbanist utopia, such as a protected bike lane or a shared-use path that is separate from the road.
What Difference Will It Make?
"Implementing the 2016 Mobility Bond will cut traffic delays by 25% and collisions by 15% on the streets we most use all over the city," tweeted Mayor Steve Adler in February, before adding, with a tad of Trumpian bravado: "The Smart Corridor Plan is beginning to look like a Genius Corridor Plan."
Adler's tweet isn't inaccurate, but it's lacking some critical context. The figure he is citing comes from an analysis the city conducted of projected traffic conditions in 2035. That analysis compared two scenarios: the corridors in 2035 with the bond improvements and the corridors in 2035 without the improvements. In the latter scenario, the delay time would be 25% higher. What that analysis does not do, however, is tell us how traffic conditions in 2035 will compare to what we're experiencing now. In fact, Behunek says that the city does not have figures on current delay conditions.
When it comes to delay time for drivers, the bond projects will make things better than they would have become otherwise. And yet, that doesn't mean the driving experience will necessarily improve: All indications are that the Austin area population will continue to grow rapidly, meaning more people and more cars clogging up city roads. Kara Kockelman, a transportation engineering professor at UT, notes that a 1% increase of drivers on the road can increase delay time by 8%. "I think 2035 travel times will be higher regardless of these improvements, but probably less high, and hopefully [we will] save a lot of delay on those improved corridors."
Danielle Skidmore, a transportation engineer at K. Friese & Associates who is running for City Council District 9 in November, supports the bond but agrees with Kockelman that congestion will remain a way of life. "While we will move more vehicles through improved corridors more safely, we will also have more drivers in the system. An individual's experience may not change all that much," she said.
Corridor Program Director Mike Trimble declined to speculate on the specific effect improvements may have on rush-hour traffic in 15 years, but insisted "the average Austin driver will see improvements."
But the bond's most noticeable changes may be for non-drivers. All nine corridors will eventually include sidewalks and bike lanes along their entire length, making walking and biking safer, and therefore more attractive to more people. Sidewalks will also help to make transit more appealing, since people are less inclined to walk to take the bus if they feel that the walk to get to their stop is hazardous or uncomfortable.
And yet, the bond's improvements for bikers, pedestrians, and transit represent a small step toward an end goal. Corridor studies that inspired the $482 million program identified $1.4 billion in needs. Take sidewalks: The local mobility program ear-marks $37.5 million for them, and a sub-stantial portion of the $27.5 million "Safe Routes to School" program will include sidewalk construction, leading to an estimated 54 miles of new sidewalks. Yet even all that represents a fraction of the $1.64 billion 2016's Sidewalk Master Plan estimated it would cost to fill in the city's more than 2,500 miles of "missing sidewalks."
And while Austin cyclists will appreciate the $20 million earmarked in the bond for bike infrastructure, along with the $26 million to build new urban trails, that's still a far cry from the $151 million the city's Bicycle Master Plan says would be needed to implement a similar path and trail plan to the one in Portland, Ore., which claims the highest bike use in the country.
While the bond won't bring transformative change, there's reason to be optimistic that something like that could be coming. Cap Metro is currently drafting Project Connect, an ambitious plan for a high-capacity transit network to serve the city and region. The agency has not committed to rail service and bus rapid transit (separate lanes on major roadways), but when it does, the transportation authority will likely need to seek funding through bond money, giving Austinites their third opportunity for an up-and-down vote on rail transit.
Kockelman hopes Austin will become one of the first to implement citywide congestion pricing: a system of electronic tolls that charge drivers based on traffic conditions, thereby incentivizing people to drive during off-peak hours. She advocates for offering residents "credits" at the beginning of each month that they can use to pay tolls or ride transit. Once they exhaust their credits, they begin paying out of pocket. Although she is convinced such a system would make commuting easier and more affordable, she recognizes the political challenge of implementing such a change.
Even if the city doesn't get that ambitious, it will likely try to build upon 2016's success with future transportation bonds. "Ideally we have a steady infusion of funding," said Trimble. "This is a step in that direction and there will be other steps in the future."
In fact, voters will likely be asked to approve another hefty bond package (the city manager has recommended $816 million) this November to provide funding for a number of pressing needs, including transportation. Next week Council will consider the city manager's proposed package, which includes $176 million for transportation, mostly for routine street repair and bridge replacements, although $20 million is proposed for sidewalks and $5 million for converting a number of high-trafficked bus lanes from asphalt to concrete.