Austin American-Statesman articles on Proposition 1 election, 2010 (compilation)

Bond splits business groups

Chamber of commerce says it backs transit proposal

Ben Wear

Publication Date: August 31, 2010  Page: B01  Section: METRO  Edition: Final

Austin's business community has split on the city's $90 million transportation bond election in November. Two weeks after the Real Estate Council of Austin's board voted to oppose the bond proposal, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce on Monday joined about 20 local groups in support of the vote.

"It is a significant first step," homebuilder Terry Mitchell , chairman of the chamber's transportation committee, said at a Monday news conference called by a political action committee formed to support the bond election. Mitchell, who is also president of Momark Development, said that $27.2 million of the money would go to projects to lessen traffic congestion and $19.5 million to reconstruct aging streets, but he added that the area's overall transportation needs could be in the billions of dollars.

"This bond should not be seen as an end-all," he said.

The Downtown Austin Alliance also supports Proposition 1, which includes about 30 specific projects and other money for sidewalks, road repair, traffic calming and signal improvements around the city. The list of supporters cited by Get Austin Moving , the political committee pushing for passage of the proposition, also included several bicycle groups, environmental advocates and trails organizations.

Officials with the Real Estate Council argued that given the bond proposal's hefty dose of nonroad projects - about 43 percent of the spending, including $14.4 million for a boardwalk extension of the Lady Bird Lake hike-and-bike trail - voters should have been offered two propositions: one for roads and one for the bike, sidewalk and trails projects.

The Real Estate Council's executive board has not decided whether it will form a political action committee to raise money for ads, mailings or other activity to oppose Proposition 1.

Ted Siff , former Texas director of the Trust for Public Land and treasurer of Get Austin Moving, said Monday that the group hopes to raise about $100,000 to campaign for Proposition 1. So far, he said, the group has secured about $20,000 in cash and pledges.

Siff's group also unveiled the 36 members of its steering committee, including Mitchell; former Austin Mayor Gus Garcia; former Austin Council Member Brigid Shea; Joe Cantalupo , former executive director of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization; Capital Metro board members Frank Fernandez and Beverly Silas ; Central Austin developer Perry Lorenz ; and Richard Ridings, a longtime consulting engineer for the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority.

bwear@statesman.com; 445-3698

$90 million proposal includes big portion for alternative transit

Ben Wear

Publication Date: October 17, 2010  Page: E01  Section: VOTERGUIDE  Edition: FINAL

Austin voters will decide whether the city should borrow $90 million for roads, bike lanes, sidewalks - and for "the elephant in the room."

The pachyderm in question is a $17.4 million project, known in city shorthand as the "boardwalk," that would close a several-mile gap in the Lady Bird Lake hike-and-bike trail. That section of trail, on the south side of the lake from near South Congress Avenue to Lakeshore Drive, would primarily consist of a concrete path over the water, in part because of development along the lake.

That expenditure - the city's cost would be $14.4 million , with about $3 million probably coming from the nonprofit Trail Foundation - is largely responsible for the unusual mix of spending in this bond election.

Past Austin transportation bond propositions, officials say, have typically included at least 85 percent of spending on road projects. This time the split is 57 percent for road work and 43 percent for alternative forms of transportation.

"We have to start thinking about transportation as a system, a system that's connected, compatible, complementary," Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell said during what has been a largely low-key campaign for Proposition 1. "We can't think strictly in terms of 'We need more roads.'"

The Real Estate Council of Austin's board had problems with Proposition 1, voting against endorsing the bond proposal. At least some members felt that Austin voters should be presented with two or more transportation propositions, with, for instance, one for road projects and another for nonroad projects - and maybe yet another proposition for the boardwalk, which Leffingwell called the elephant in the room when speaking about the bond proposal to the Austin Neighborhoods Council.

But the Real Estate Council's executive committee, in another vote, decided not to actively campaign against the proposition.

Proposition 1 has the support of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Austin Alliance , the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club, and more than two dozen other local political, environmental and civic organizations.

Construction on each of the 30 or so specific projects and other general sidewalk and intersection work in the bond proposal would commence within two years , city officials say, and many of the projects would begin sooner than that. The boardwalk, for instance, would be under way by spring, they say.

The city, like other local governments, would pay back the bonds over the next 20 years with proceeds from the portion of its property tax rate devoted to debt.

Approving the bonds would not trigger a tax rate increase, city officials say, because enough existing debt would be paid off before the city borrows this $90 million.

Opponents point out, however, that saying no to the bonds in theory could trigger a property tax decrease. Leffingwell said that a cut would be unlikely. Failing to issue this debt, he said, would simply provide more debt capacity for a much larger city bond election envisioned for 2012.

bwear@statesman.com; 445-3698

(BOX)

Other projects in Proposition 1

Among other projected projects in the Austin measure:

* $19.5 million for reconstruction on various Austin streets, including Stassney Lane, the Emmett Shelton Bridge (over Red Bud Isle on Lady Bird Lake) and East Fifth Street

* $10 million for sidewalk improvements citywide, focusing on changes to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act

* $8 million to reconstruct Third Street downtown between San Antonio and Trinity streets, adding 18-foot-wide sidewalks, trees and other 'great streets' amenities

* $4 million for design and construction of intersection improvements on U.S. 290 and Texas 71 at the Oak Hill 'Y' area

* $4.2 million for traffic signals and signal management

* $2.7 million for traffic 'calming' and railroad 'quiet zone' facilities

* $2.3 million to reconfigure the Interstate 35/East 51st Street interchange

More on the bond

For a complete list of projects, go to www.cityofaustin.org/news/mobility_bond.htm.

Groups hitting brakes on transit bond proposal

Ben Wear

Publication Date: October 19, 2010  Page: B01  Section: METRO  Edition: Final

The City of Austin's proposed $90 million transportation bond issue, which for much of the campaign season was largely unopposed, has acquired some organized, well-funded opposition in the past couple of weeks.

At least seven groups now are calling for the defeat of Proposition 1. And spending to that end - in the form of full-page newspaper ads, billboards, signs and mailed fliers - has begun.

Mike Levy , former publisher of Texas Monthly , said Monday that he has donated about $30,000 to the Sensible Transportation Solutions for Austin political action committee. That group was formed Oct. 5 , according to its filing with the city.

Levy said his main problem is that the proposal is presented as one take-it-or-leave-it ballot issue. Say no to $14.4 million for a boardwalk trail on Lady Bird Lake and you lose road improvements, and vice versa, Levy said. And he said supporters are selling it as a way to mitigate congestion when some of the projects, including an $8 million makeover of Third Street downtown, would actually remove a traffic lane to make room for wider sidewalks and bike lanes.

"If you look at it, it's reducing capacity in many areas," Levy said. Supporters "say it's transparent. But it's not transparent. It's vague. It's hiding."

If so, said Ted Siff , treasurer of the main group supporting Proposition 1, the hiding is occurring in plain sight. All of the projects are listed on the websites of the city and Siff's group (getaustinmoving.com ). And the city's site, although it takes a few well-placed clicks to find, has detailed descriptions and maps of the 30 or so specific projects envisioned under Proposition 1. (Go to www.cityofaustin.org/news/bond_projects.htm .)

"The substance of (opponents') complaints adds up to one phrase, which is a roads-only approach as a transportation solution for Austin," Siff said. "And that has gotten us where we are today."

Getaustinmoving.com has raised about $85,000 , Siff said, and plans radio ads, mailers and signs calling for approval of the bond issue. The group lists about 40 political, business and civic organizations that support Proposition 1.

The roster of opponents now includes El Concilio - a coalition of East Side Mexican American neighborhood associations - and District 12 of the League of United Latin American Citizens , which announced their joint position in a news release Monday. The groups contend that the bond program "ignores many needed street repairs and sidewalks in our Barrios ," and that building the boardwalk would pollute Lady Bird Lake, the release said.

Meanwhile, two Central Austin business groups, the West Austin Downtown Alliance and Austinites for Downtown Mobility, which opposed the city's Nueces Street "bicycle boulevard" proposal, have said they want Proposition 1 defeated. And two other opposition groups have surfaced, Austinites for Action , headed by former Mayor and former Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn , and Engineers Affirming Sustainable Transportation , whose treasurer is longtime passenger rail opponent Jim Skaggs .

Skaggs' group already has yard signs up - "Wrong priority, wrong time," the signs say.

He wouldn't say how much money the group has raised.

"Not one thing they're doing is cost-effective," Skaggs said of the proposition's supporters. "They're just saying the words. This doesn't reduce congestion."

bwear@statesman.com; 445-3698

Bias vs. streets in bond picks?

'Community values' figured into $90 million of projects in Proposition 1, supporters say

Ben Wear

Publication Date: October 24, 2010  Page: A01  Section: MAIN  Edition: Final  

The intersection of Texas 71 and FM 973 , just east of the Austin airport, is a bottleneck. With more growth in eastern Travis County, including the planned Formula One track, it will probably only become more congested.

In the past, an overpass at this intersection might have been a prime candidate for funding as part of a city transportation bond issue. Not this year.

A Texas 71 overpass was considered among 470 projects as part of a $90 million City of Austin bond proposal.

According to the city's scoring system for evaluating the proposals, which gave greater weight to values such as sustainability and "access to green space" than to alleviating traffic congestion, the overpass project ranked 410th . The overpass, which would cost $50 million and presumably would combine city and state money, didn't come close to making the cut.

Coming in 12th , and among the projects that would be funded if voters approve the bond issue on Nov. 2, is a boardwalk over Lady Bird Lake that would extend the hike-and-bike trail into Southeast Austin. The city would spend $14.4 million for the project; a private group has pledged $3 million.

It is among at least $38.7 million in proposed spending for sidewalks, bike lanes and other projects for the benefit of pedestrians and cyclists. That's in contrast with transportation lists put before voters between 1992 and 2006 . Under those proposals, all approved by voters, the city spent between 87 percent and 100 percent on road projects.

Supporters of the November bond proposal, called Proposition 1, say the projects that made the list, and the grading system that produced them, accurately reflect "community values" in an increasingly urbanized Austin.

"We have to start thinking about transportation as a system, a system that's connected, compatible, complementary," Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell said at a recent meeting of the Austin Neighborhoods Council. "We can't think strictly in terms of, 'We need more roads.'"

Opponents, on the other hand, said the projects will do little to address the community's most pressing transportation challenge - clogged roads - and that city officials with a yen for alternative forms of transportation predetermined the result when they designed the scoring matrix.

"The scoring system skews everything toward bikes and trails and sidewalks," Ed Wendler , who develops single-family housing and has been actively campaigning against Proposition 1, said at that same neighborhood meeting. "It was configured to favor projects that have nothing to do with traffic or congestion."

City officials deny that they fixed the scoring system to favor pedestrian and bike projects over roads.

The scoring system - each potential project received 22 separate grades on a scale of 1 to 10, which were then weighted to produce a final total - was devised by the city Transportation Department.

The department's workers and its consultant Kimley-Horn and Associates Inc. spent several weeks scoring those 470 projects, which emerged from a several-month city effort to gather public suggestions on "gaps" in Austin's transportation network.

'Integrated mobility'

An April 23 city document outlines a "mobility vision" used as a guidepost in devising the scoring system for the bond list: Austin should have "an integrated mobility network " that provides safe and efficient alternatives to driving alone." The document says that the "old paradigm" of addressing transportation was "to react to existing congestion by adding capacity, typically roadway. Experience across the country has shown the shortcomings of this approach."

Instead, it says, "a shift from spending to investing that supports transit, walking and biking as well as driving, can be linked directly to constructive outcomes in a way that the old road-based, capacity focused paradigm has proven unable to do."

The document, which city Transportation Department Director Rob Spillar says was written by Kimley-Horn with input and oversight from his staff, was based in part on a set of "livability principles" put out in recent months by President Barack Obama's administration, as well as a series of public meetings hosted by Spillar's department. There was also an online survey.

The 242 people who attended those meetings, as well as the thousand or so who took part online, were asked to take a notional $40 and say how they'd apportion that money among eight transportation objectives previously identified by city staff: efficiency, environmental stewardship, economic development, mobility choices, neighborhood coordination and connectivity, regional integration, safety and sustainable growth.

Mitigating traffic congestion was not on that list. However, the scoring system does have a subcategory, under the efficiency objective, called "person-capacity added." Many of the other 21 subcategories carry equal or greater weight than that measure in arriving at a final score for a given project.

That potential Texas 71 overpass got the maximum score that a highway could earn for adding person-capacity: six points.

But it got eight zeros in other subcategories, including on whether it "supports sustainable development patterns." The boardwalk, meanwhile, garnered a score of two for moving people but just one zero (for "connection to nearby amenities" - critics have charged that the boardwalk itself is an amenity rather than a transportation project) and had 12 scores of 10.

Wendler said a close reading of the scoring system tells him that road projects started out in a hole. While a road gets extra points for adding person-capacity, bicycle and pedestrian projects storm back by getting bonus scoring for having low operating costs.

Then, once fuel conservation is taken into account (under the environmental stewardship category), a bicycle or pedestrian project inevitably has a several-point lead over a road job, Wendler said.

Ted Siff, treasurer of Get Austin Moving, a political action committee supporting Proposition 1, said critics "have some legitimate concerns about the weighting of those criteria." But he said opponents are missing, or ignoring, the importance of "shovel-readiness" in creating the list - bicycle and sidewalks projects in most cases can be designed and executed far faster than highway work.

Spillar waved off discussion of the scoring system's intricacies in an interview earlier this month.

"I'm not going to debate (Wendler's) math," Spillar said. "If the premise is that roads were discriminated against, the premise is wrong. They came out 57 percent."

Wendler and others, however, dispute that accounting of the $90 million.

'A complete street'

The 57 percent road spending in the bond proposal, prominently mentioned in both city materials and those put out by Get Austin Moving, includes $8 million for Third Street downtown. That involves a "great streets" makeover of seven blocks between the Austin Convention Center and Shoal Creek. That stretch is now primarily three lanes going one-way west, often with parallel parking on both sides.

The project would result in two one-way lanes, with sidewalks almost twice as wide and bike lanes as part of the Lance Armstrong Bikeway . One less lane for cars, in other words, and perhaps fewer parking spaces.

"We are moving toward a complete street concept," Spillar said. "And a street has to carry a lot of different modes."

The 57 percent also includes $2.7 million for "traffic calming" - which by definition slows down cars - and spending to put in place "quiet zones" at railway crossings so trains don't have to blow their horns.

Put those projects into the non-road category, and the balance reverses.

"Do I think that (road work) characterization is deceptive?" Spillar said of the Third Street makeover. "The answer is no. I think it's a reasonable representation of the project."

Spillar said the scoring system is in line with the direction his department received from the City Council when it voted unanimously March 23 to initiate a November bond election. The council's resolution approved that day calls for a "bond package comprised of road, sidewalk, bicycle infrastructure, trail and other transportation-related investments." It does not mention a particular mix.

But it says the criteria for evaluating the potential projects should include "community values " such as geographic equity, traffic congestion relief, environmental impact, traffic safety, and potential for state and federal grants and aid."

Spillar, while acknowledging that those who participated in formulating the community values were self-selected and thus the process did not amount to scientific opinion sampling, said his department used "state of the art" practices for sounding out the public.

"We listened to everyone who would come to the table and work," Spillar said.

Another entity did conduct a scientific poll of community values on transportation.

The Real Estate Council of Austin, which voted to oppose the bond election but later decided not to actively campaign against it, did not intend to release the results of the phone poll that Republican pollster Baselice and Associates conducted for the real estate group on Aug. 21-23 . The Statesman obtained a summary, however.

Of 400 voters surveyed, 307 of them Austinites and 59 percent Democrats, 65 percent said the best solution for "traffic reduction" would be "building new roads and highways." A quarter of those polled said the best strategy would be "creating more lanes for bicycles and walkways for pedestrians."

In a separate question, 58 percent said they opposed the Lady Bird Lake boardwalk project. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 5.8 percent age points.

As political professionals say, however, the only poll that matters began with early voting on Monday. It concludes Nov. 2 .

bwear@statesman.com; 445-3698

(BOX)

Breaking down the bonds

The City of Austin says that 57 percent of the $90 million in 'mobility bonds' would pay for 'roadway' projects and 43 percent for 'multi-modal' work. But several projects in the roadway category would in fact reduce capacity for vehicles while adding capacity for pedestrians and cyclists. These projects total $12.3 million, and if added to the non-roadway column would reverse the bond program's balance to 43 percent road and 57 percent 'multi-modal' work.

Roads

All of these projects, a total of $39 million, either add lane or intersection capacity, or would reconstruct aging streets:

* $19.5 million, street reconstruction

* $4.2 million, various traffic signal and signal control improvements

* $4 million, Oak Hill 'Y' intersection improvements

* $2.3 million, Interstate 35/East 51st Street interchange reconfiguration

* $2 million, Slaughter Lane extension

* $ 1.4 million, West Rundberg Lane extension

* $ 1 million, new Wild Horse Street in far Northeast Austin

* $ 1 million for real estate funds for 'corridor preservation'

* $ 1 million, I-35 study

* $860,000, East Rundberg Lane extension

* $465,000, Pleasant Valley Road intersection improvements

* $400,000, improve RM 2222 at RM 620 intersection

* $300,000, widen two-lane section of South Congress Avenue

* $250,000, U.S. 183 intersection improvements

* $250,000, signal design for Seventh and Eighth streets as two-way downtown

* $100,000, for MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) study

Other projects

The city classifies the $38.7 million for these projects as either bicycle, pedestrian, transit or 'mobility trail' work:

* $14.4 million, Lady Bird Lake Trail boardwalk

* $10 million, Americans with Disabilities Act sidewalk improvements

* $4.4 million, sidewalks, neighborhood matching funds

* $2.7 million, Waller Creek trail improvements

* $2 million, utility relocation, 'great streets' design for Lavaca and Guadalupe streets

* $ 1 million, Austin-to-Manor trail

* $750,000, Barton Springs Road bike lanes

* $700,000, Kramer Lane trail

* $650,000, Guadalupe Street bike lanes

* $600,000, Riverside Drive bike/pedestrian improvements

* $500,000, Brodie Lane sidewalks

* $465,000, Jollyville Road/U.S. 183 bike crossing

* $200,000, I-35/East Fourth Street bike/pedestrian improvements

* $150,000, Dessau Road/Cameron Lane bike lanes

* $100,000, Manchaca Road bike/pedestrian improvements

* $100,000, Johnson Terrace neighborhood sidewalks

Roads, or not?

The city includes these projects, totaling $12.3 million, in the 57 percent roadway figure:

* $8 million, Third Street. Would convert what is primarily a three-lane, one-way street to two lanes, add bike lanes and widen 10-foot sidewalks to 18 feet in a 'great streets' makeover.

* $2.7 million, traffic calming and quiet zone projects citywide. Traffic calming devices, such as speed humps and roundabouts, are designed to slow traffic. Establishing a 'quiet zone' in South Austin would allow trains to pass intersections without blowing their horns.

* $725,000 Manor Road 'cross-section improvements.' Existing four-lane road between Airport Boulevard and East 51st Street would become three lanes, with bike lanes, sidewalks and roundabouts.

* $450,000 for engineering/design on FM 969/Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard improvements between U.S. 183 and the city of Webberville. Design would include bike and pedestrian improvements and might or might not add capacity to farm-to-market road.

* $430,000 for engineering/design on Airport Boulevard improvements to, according to the city, 'transform the current rural roadway cross-section to an urban street and increase vehicular, pedestrian, and bicycle mobility and accessibility.'

Transportation bond proposal endorsed by former Austin mayors

Ben Wear

Publication Date: October 30, 2010  Page: A01  Section: MAIN  Edition: Final

Proposition 1, the City of Austin transportation bond proposal that initially generated little attention, in the past month has attracted considerable money for and against it. And Friday, a phalanx of former Austin mayors called for approval of the $90 million measure.

Supporters of Proposition 1 have raised more than twice as much money as opponents, with more than half of their $102,000 in donations coming from engineering companies and advocates for trails, according to campaign finance reports filed this week and earlier this fall.

Meanwhile, the $48,000 raised by two opposition political action committees has been financed almost entirely by former Texas Monthly publisher Mike Levy and longtime passenger rail opponent Jim Skaggs .

"Close to 90 percent of their funding is coming from two individuals who are trying to delay transportation solutions for the rest of us," said Ted Siff , treasurer of the Get Austin Moving political action committee, formed to support the proposition.

Levy, who has spent more than $30,000 to oppose Proposition 1, claimed that most of the money donated to Siff's group has come from people or groups that could directly benefit if it passes.

"They all do business with the city," Levy said, referring to those engineering and construction contributors along with lawyers and lobbyists on city issues who also donated to Get Austin Moving. "I did it because the city has been good to me, and I think what they're doing with Proposition 1 is just plain wrong."

The city would use the money to pay for road, sidewalk and trail improvements, including $14.4 million in city money for an extension of the Lady Bird Lake hike-and-bike trail that primarily would be a concrete boardwalk over the water.

On Friday, the last day of early voting, the push for the proposition picked up endorsements from the seven mayors who preceded current Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, from Ron Mullen in 1983 through Will Wynn, who finished his six years leading the city in 2009. Wynn, who Leffingwell said sent word of his support, was the only one of the seven not on hand for the City Hall announcement.

"It's true of any bond package that there are things that have been left out and will have to be taken care of later," said Frank Cooksey , mayor from 1985 to 1988 . "There are things that might be questioned in terms of priority."

But when he sees that the pro-business Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce has joined several environmental groups in supporting it, Cooksey said, "one has to believe that this is good for our city."

Supporters have raised questions about those who are opposing the proposal. They argue that Skaggs, a retired high-tech executive who lives outside Austin, is in effect meddling in electoral business that doesn't directly affect him because he doesn't pay Austin property taxes. Austin would pay back the bonds, should voters approve Proposition 1, from property taxes.

Skaggs, however, said he has been a "major investor" in Jack Allen's Kitchen , an Oak Hill restaurant that is in Austin, and pays taxes from that property to the city.

Skaggs donated $2,000 to the Engineers Affirming Sustainable Transportation political action committee, which opposes Proposition 1, and the Coalition on Sustainable Transportation loaned the committee $3,000 , according to campaign finance documents. The coalition organization lists as its address Skaggs' home. Taken together, that donation and loan represent 88 percent of what the engineers' committee has raised.

Skaggs also gave $10,000 to the Sensible Transportation Solutions for Austin committee. But that is dwarfed by Levy's support of that group, which amounts to almost $31,000 , mostly in purchases of advertising to oppose Proposition 1. That includes full-page ads in the American-Statesman and Community Impact newspapers earlier this month.

Levy, Skaggs and other opponents have said that the mix of spending in Proposition 1 is ill-conceived because at least 43 percent of it would be for nonroad projects.

About 150 donors have supported Get Austin Moving, but most of the money comes from a relatively small number of givers. The Trail Foundation , a nonprofit that backs Austin trails and has separately pledged to raise $3 million to help build the Lady Bird Lake boardwalk, gave Get Austin Moving $15,000 in September, finance reports show.

The committee received separate $5,000 donations from the Downtown Austin Alliance (many of the projects under Proposition 1 would be downtown), from Austin Metro Trails & Greenways and from URS Corp. , an engineering company.

In all, Get Austin Moving has received more than $36,000 from at least three dozen engineering, construction and surveying companies, entities that could be expected to compete for work if the bonds are approved by voters.

The pro-bond effort has also received more than $2,600 total from a dozen bicycle businesses, including $884 from Mellow Johnny's, Lance Armstrong's shop.

bwear@statesman.com; 445-3698

(BOX)

Proposition 1 fundraising

In support                Time period        Contributions        Expenditures

Get Austin Moving PAC        Aug. 6-Sept. 30        $59,580.00        $18,659.24

                        Oct. 1-Oct. 23        $42,484.29        $34,012.67

                        Total:                $102,064.29        $52,671.91

In opposition

Engineers Affirming        Oct. 5-Oct. 23        $5,650.00 $2,157.98

Sustainable Transportation PAC

Sensible Transportation        Oct. 5-Oct. 23        $42,290.44        0*

Solutions for Austin PAC

                        Total:                $47,940.4 4        $2,157.98*

*Report, in the contributions section, seems to indicate expenditures of at least $30,790.44 on printing, advertising and mailing lists. Sensible Transportation Solutions as of Oct. 23 probably had $12,000 or less remaining to spend, and the two political committees have spent more than $33,000.

Source: Campaign finance reports filed with the City of Austin

Despite history, bonds not a sure thing, mayor says

BEN WEAR

Publication Date: November 1, 2010  Page: B01  Section: METRO  Edition: Final

Proposition 1 could be a tossup.

This is not speculation, mind you, or whispered innuendo by opponents of the city's $90 million transportation bond issue on Tuesday's ballot. No, I have a pretty good source: Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell.

Leffingwell, who flew airliners for a living before retiring, has been the proposition's No. 1 cheerleader, albeit in his measured, this-is-your-pilot-speaking way. He was, in fact, the emcee of a chorus line of former Austin mayors at a Friday news conference extolling the ballot measure's many virtues and repeating talking points I've heard since August: no property tax increase associated with the new debt " construction prices are low right now " bond projects would be all over town " most transparent bond election since government was invented.

I made that last part up.

It struck me that the very existence of this mayoral endorsement show, coming as it did four days before Election Day and on the last day of early voting, after about 20 percent of the electorate had already voted, might indicate nervousness on the part of Proposition 1 supporters. I asked around, and it turned out the suggestion for the seven former mayors to appear together and endorse the proposal was hatched only a week ago.

So I asked Leffingwell if the event indicated that Proposition 1 was having trouble in supporters' internal polling. Candor ensued.

"Well, I have not seen a poll myself," Leffingwell said. "But I've heard about polls that indicate this is going to be a close contest. We had not expected that to happen. I think that's entirely due to a large infusion of money by opponents into media and signs and so forth. It's like Harry Truman said: It's a lot easier to kick a barn door in than it is to build a barn."

Opponents might argue that in this case, the city wants to build a barn when it really needs a grain silo. Reasonable minds can disagree, of course, including about whether the other side is reasonable or out of its mind.

But what is not arguable is that the larger infusion of money actually has been from supporters. As this paper and other media reported last week, supporters through Oct. 23 had raised more than twice as much money as opponents.

So why would Proposition 1 find itself in a tight race between yes and no, given the fairly regular success of bond elections in Austin (every City of Austin transportation bond issue on the ballot since 1992 has passed)?

Government spending, always a handy punching bag for the right, has been a particularly fat target in this time of record national deficits, and national polls indicate Republicans are the more motivated voters this year. Though transportation often is a nonpartisan issue, most of the people on the vote-no side in this case are conservative, and many on the vote-yes side are Democrats. Proposition 1 supporters have to hope that Austin's Democratic majority shows up in strength.

And then there's the unusual mix of projects, with at least 43 percent of the $90 million going to nonroad projects, including $14.4 million for a concrete boardwalk extension of the trail around Lady Bird Lake. Supporters of Proposition 1 are selling a vision of a future Austin with more cyclists, more pedestrians, more transit and fewer people driving around alone in cars. They maintain that eventually this multimodal kind of Austin would have less traffic congestion than one merely with more roads.

Voters, meanwhile, are in the here and now looking at slow-moving bumpers in front of them. On Tuesday evening we'll find out if they want a silo more than they want a barn.

For questions, tips or story ideas, contact Getting There at 445-3698 or bwear@statesman.com.

Transportation bond rolls along

Austin's $90 million proposal for road, pedestrian and bike work heads toward passage

Ben Wear

Publication Date: November 3, 2010  Page: A06  Section: MAIN  Edition: FINAL

Proposition 1, the City of Austin's proposal to borrow $90 million for a variety of road, sidewalk and bike projects, appeared headed to victory Tuesday based on an early tally of votes.

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell said that if Proposition 1 passes, many of the projects will be under way within a year, and all of them within two years. Construction of a boardwalk extension of the hike-and-bike trail along the south shore of Lady Bird Lake should begin by March, he said.

"Traffic congestion is not going to be better tomorrow morning, but it's not going to take five or six years, either, for these projects to be built," Leffingwell said. "It's going to have a positive effect on the economy and job creation, too."

Proposition 1, in a departure from past city transportation bond issues, would devote at least 43 percent of the spending to nonroad projects. Aside from the boardwalk, the city will put $14.4 million into sidewalk construction, $2.7 million into Waller Creek trail improvements, $ 1 million into an Austin-to-Manor trail and $750,000 to bike lanes on Barton Springs Road.

As for streets and highways, which city officials said account for about $51 million of the bond proposal, the largest project would be an $8 million reworking of Third Street downtown to narrow the three-lane, one-way street to two lanes, with travel in each direction and much wider sidewalks. The city also will spend $19.5 million on reconstruction of various city thoroughfares, $4.2 million on traffic signal improvements, and $4 million on intersection improvements and other as-yet-unspecified changes to U.S. 290 and Texas 71 in the Oak Hill neighborhood.

That work, done in concert with the Texas Department of Transportation, is meant to be a short-term improvement for the congested "Y" exchange until the state can find the money to build an expressway through that stretch.

Opponents of the proposition, who raised more than $40,000 and ran ads in the last weeks of the campaign, had criticized the city for "bundling" the boardwalk and other alternative transportation projects with the roadwork. By including all the spending in one ballot question, they said, the city forced voters to approve projects they didn't like or reject those they wanted.

In addition, opponents said, the $90 million should have been spent mostly on projects that would directly address traffic congestion.

bwear@statesman.com; 445-3698

Bond proposal's support strong in city's center, weaker on edges

Ben Wear

Publication Date: November 4, 2010  Page: A01  Section: MAIN  Edition: Final

Austin's core, a loud yes. Suburbs, a murmured no.

The blend of opposing viewpoints from liberal urban Austin and more moderate suburban Austin, a common feature of city elections for many years, meant a 56.3 percent victory Tuesday for Proposition 1. But though the general pattern of voting may have been familiar, the overall result was a departure from past votes on transportation bond measures in Austin.

The vote to allow the city to borrow $90 million for a mix of road, bicycle and pedestrian projects was by no means close - it passed by more than 20,500 votes - but the percentage of those approving it was atypically low.

Six of eight city transportation bond elections since 1979 were approved by more than 70 percent . All eight bond measures passed, and only once did fewer than 60 percent of voters say yes; in 1992 , 59 percent authorized a $500,000 sidewalk bond while 72 percent approved a separate road bond measure on the same ballot.

"Those weren't even controversial," said Mike Blizzard , a filmmaker and political consultant who worked on the Get Austin Moving campaign in support of the bonds. "No one argued against them."

That certainly wasn't the case with Proposition 1, particularly in the final weeks.

A core group of a dozen or so opponents, rankled by $14.4 million in proposed city spending on a planned boardwalk over Lady Bird Lake and other nonroad elements of Proposition 1, raised more than $40,000 and bought print ads and put out signs in the final weeks. That effort, however, appeared to make little difference in the end.

Polling before early voting began showed 58 percent support for Proposition 1, said pollster Mark Littlefield , who conducted the surveys for Get Austin Moving. That figure is only slightly higher than Tuesday's outcome.

Opinions in that poll broke down on partisan lines, Littlefield said, with only about 20 percent of Republicans in support but close to 80 percent of Democrats approving. He said people who had voted in both Democratic and GOP primaries in the past "were kind of split, and it depended on where they lived."

That geographic breakdown, in the end, pertained.

Proposition 1 got more than 60 percent support - and often more than 70 percent - in all of the voting precincts roughly bounded by U.S. 183, Ben White Boulevard and MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) . But support at more modest levels radiated miles out from that core, with majorities approving the bonds as far north as Howard Lane , west to RM 620, east to Del Valle and south to Slaughter Lane .

Where Proposition 1 did lose, the no votes typically were below 60 percent. Opponents said Wednesday that it was a matter of voters not understanding the decision before them.

"We were able in a short period of time to educate a lot of people," said Dominic Chavez , treasurer of the Sensible Transportation Solutions for Austin political action committee. "Problem is, we ran out of time."

Blizzard, however, said the timing was actually a greater problem for supporters of the proposition. The transportation bonds were on the ballot on a day, he said, when Republicans nationwide were far more motivated to vote than Democrats. And Blizzard said that in some of the city's most liberal areas, Democratic House candidates faced light opposition, which may have dampened turnout.

In Precinct 367 in Southwest Austin, for instance, where Proposition 1 lost with 48.5 percent , about 52 percent of registered voters came to the polls. That precinct was involved in the close House contest between incumbent Democratic state Rep. Valinda Bolton and Republican Paul Workman, who won.

Meanwhile, in Precinct 145 near Hyde Park, where 74.2 percent of voters said yes to the bonds and Democratic state Rep. Elliott Naishtat had no GOP opponent, the turnout was 40 percent .

Blizzard said that above all, Austinites were not used to thinking of transportation in terms broader than road spending.

"So, yes, it had some controversy, but it passed by a pretty wide margin," he said. "And I expect that over time that new approach will be the norm."

bwear@statesman.com; 445-3698

$90 million OK'd by voters doesn't turn many shovels

BEN WEAR

Publication Date: August 29, 2011  Page: B01  Section: METRO  Edition: Final  

You may recall that a big selling point of Proposition 1, the City of Austin's $90 million transportation bond issue that voters approved in November, was that many of the projects were "shovel-ready," a construction phrase first hammered into the collective vocabulary during debate over President Barack Obama's 2009 economic stimulus bill.

The point by Proposition 1 supporters such as Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell was that with the economy still in the doldrums and contractors willing to bid at prices a third or more lower than just a few years before, it was the time for government to be making public improvements. Like, for instance, the $17.4 million boardwalk trail on Lady Bird Lake's south bank east of Congress Avenue; Leffingwell said last fall that it could have groundbreaking by March.

The city said in February that it would bid the job this summer and be working by December or so. Now, city officials say the bid package won't go out until October , with construction starting (perhaps) by the end of January. The 1. 1-mile project will go partly over water and fill in a missing link on the hike-and-bike trail around the lake. Whenever it starts, work should take about two years.

But a look at the city's Proposition 1 projects, updated earlier this month, indicates that very little construction, at least on larger jobs, has begun. That list can be found at www.ci.austin.tx.us/bonds/2010 .

Of the more than two dozen individual construction projects on that list, a bike crossing on Jollyville Road has been completed and two sidewalk projects in East Austin and South Austin appear to be under way about 10 months after the election. Among that $90 million, voters sanctioned spending about $17 million in general pots of money for bike projects, sidewalks and traffic signal improvements, and the list indicates that at least some of that work is happening. How much is unclear.

To be fair, Leffingwell also said in an op-ed piece for the Statesman that ran before the election that Proposition 1 contained a number of engineering and design projects whose purpose would be to make several other important projects shovel-ready should funding for them materialize in the next few years. And the city list indicates that design or engineering work is under way on more than 20 other projects.

The good news is that the economy still is in low gear and prices are still low. This is what you might call a silver lining.

TxDOT gets makeover

Meanwhile, the Texas Department of Transportation is busy on shovel-ready projects of its own: the renovation of the entire department. And, yes, that includes its 78-year-old art deco headquarters on East 11th Street .

The building work was obvious Thursday when the Texas Transportation Commission gathered for its monthly meeting in the Ric Williamson Hearing Room. The room, stately but dim since I began visiting it in 2003, has had a makeover that included huge new light fixtures that looked like yellowish contact lenses. And the lighting was bright enough to induce self-consciousness.

Furthermore, we could hear various construction noises as the meeting progressed, part of a $12.5 million project to replace the air-conditioning system, add a sprinkler system and otherwise bring the building up to code.

But the more meaningful makeover is occurring in the upper stories of TxDOT's management. Executive Director Amadeo Saenz and Deputy Executive Director Steve Simmons were honored Thursday for their upcoming retirements (Wednesday will be it), along with toll director Mark Tomlinson and four other top agency officials who are headed out to pasture. Engineering director John Barton has been named interim executive director.

A search for Saenz's successor might be nearing an end - retired U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Jefferson Howell , a former NASA Johnson Space Center director who is now a professor at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs, is apparently on the short list, along with, perhaps, Mary Peters, U.S. transportation secretary under President George W. Bush.

This shake-up is a direct result of TxDOT's 2007 dust-up with the Legislature when the agency was led by, yes, the late Ric Williamson. Four years later, the project is nearing an end. Some shovels can take a very long time to get ready.

Boardwalk project delayed

After touting early start date in campaign, officials say construction won't begin before late this year

Ben Wear

Publication Date: February 14, 2011  Page: A01  Section: MAIN  Edition: Final

In the run-up to November's $90 million transportation bond election, city officials said that its largest piece - the Lady Bird Lake boardwalk - could start construction as soon as January .

In a campaign in which Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell and other supporters of the bond proposal trumpeted how "shovel-ready" many of the component projects were, the $17.4 million boardwalk running along the south shore of the lake was advertised as the most shovel-ready of all.

But three months after voters approved the bonds, officials now say construction on the boardwalk will begin at the end of the year, at the earliest.

Among the reasons for the delay: a long bidding process and unexpected legal snags.The 1. 1-mile concrete bridge over the water (with small sections on land) won't be put out for bids until this summer, city Public Works Department spokeswoman Sara Hartley said last week after speaking to project manager David Taylor .

What figures to be a rigorous bidding process for the project probably will take several months, she said, and then the contract would have to be approved by the City Council.

When will construction start?

"That's hard to say," Hartley said. "Hopefully by the end of the year."

That revelation reverberated through city offices, generating varying explanations for the inaccurate estimates during the campaign. Some officials first denied that there was ever an earlier timeline. Public Works Director Howard Lazarus called the moving start date a "miscommunication" and said he might not have been specific enough.

Until Thursday afternoon, before inquiries by an American-Statesman reporter, the city's website on Proposition 1 had said the boardwalk "will be ready for construction in January 2011." Now, the website does not mention a start date.

On election night, Leffingwell amended the start date to March. He said late last week that when he mentioned March, he was referring to the bidding process.

But he said he had no idea that going from sending out bid documents to starting construction would take six months.

"I can only say I'm surprised by that, and I'm disappointed by that timetable," Leffingwell said. "When I heard this December time frame, this is not what I was led to believe. I think we have to move faster."

Officials say they have run into unexpected trouble negotiating easements for the boardwalk from landowners along the lake, Lazarus said. He wouldn't elaborate, citing ongoing legal discussions with property owners.

Hartley said the January start date on the website might have been a misprint, that the department's construction schedule always had a much later timeline. But the January date had been mentioned by city officials since early summer, and the American-Statesman printed it in both a June news article and an editorial shortly thereafter that endorsed the boardwalk concept. The March date was attributed to Leffingwell twice in the Statesman in November .

No city official ever requested a correction to those reports. It was unclear if any city staff members ever contacted Leffingwell, at least before this week, to say that the March start date was wrong.

Once it commences, the project - intended to close a gap in the Lake Bird Lake trail and provide a safe bike and pedestrian link to the East Riverside Drive area - should take about two years to complete, Hartley said.

The Statesman's June editorial that mentioned the January start date also noted that the Trail Foundation, which has promised to provide $3 million in private money for the project, was soliciting donations and provided the nonprofit's Web address. Despite that, foundation Executive Director Susan Rankin this week said she was unaware that a January start date was ever mentioned.

"I don't recall; I don't really recall," Rankin said. "I know we're on target for starting in 2011."

As for raising that $3 million, Rankin repeated information made public before the election that the foundation has $300,000 banked toward that goal and said that the fundraising effort for the rest is in a "silent phase." Given that, she declined to say how much more has been raised since the November vote.

Building the entire 1. 1 miles from just east of Congress Avenue (adjacent to the American-Statesman's property) to Lakeshore Park east of Interstate 35 depends on that $3 million. The city said before the election that absent the private money, it will build only about half of the project and release the rest of the promised bond money to other transportation projects.

The mayor and others said during the bond election campaign that the shovel-ready projects would provide the city an economic boost and take advantage of temporarily low construction prices.

The delay, assuming bidding does occur this summer, might not cost the city. A construction industry expert said the window of depressed prices has not closed.

"The competition is still fierce," said Tom Johnson , executive director of the Associated General Contractors of Texas . He said many highway projects, for instance, are still getting 20 bidders and that prices remain in a trough.

"I don't see that changing in the next six months," Johnson said. The city probably "will get good, competitive bids even if they don't go out until June or July."

Leffingwell and other Proposition 1 supporters said during the campaign that many of the projects would be under way within a year of the election and that all of them would be started within two years. It is unclear how many projects might break ground by November.

In late January, the City Council approved a $56.3 million budget amendment for Proposition 1 projects for this fiscal year, which will end Sept. 30 . But that could mean the design and engineering work only.

The boardwalk project was the only one listed by name. Others were listed by category: pedestrian and bike projects ($27.3 million ), street reconstruction ($9.8 million ), mobility improvements ($16.9 million ) and traffic signals ($2.3 million ).

The Public Works Department said the first construction - a bicycle crossing on Jollyville Road near U.S. 183 - is about to begin. The city expects to spend about $6.6 million on construction - about 7 percent of the $90 million - by the end of the first year after the election, mostly on bicycle and sidewalk projects.

Construction on two of the more prominent Proposition 1 projects - a $ 1.3 million reworking of the I-35 and East 51st Street interchange and $4 million of intersection improvements on U.S. 290 in Oak Hill, work that will be carried out by the Texas Department of Transportation using city money - is 12 to 18 months away, said Carlos Lopez , TxDOT's Austin district engineer.

bwear@statesman.com, 445-3698

Traffic is 3rd-worst in nation, study says

Congestion still below peak, partly because of economy, author says

Ben Wear

Publication Date: September 27, 2011  Page: B01  Section: METRO  Edition: Final

For the second consecutive year, the Austin area ranked No. 3 nationally in traffic congestion, ahead of Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth, according to a study to be released today by Texas A&M University researchers.

In 2010, the year studied in the report, the Austin area had a "travel time index" of 1.28 , meaning that a rush-hour trip takes 28 percent longer on average than one in free-flowing traffic. That puts the area behind only metropolitan Los Angeles, at 1.38 , and the Washington area, with an index of 1.33 , and tied with New York City and the San Francisco Bay area.

Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth, with 1.27 and 1.23 , respectively, have more acceptable traffic by that single measure from the Texas Transportation Institute, which is on the Texas A&M campus.

But Austin's 2010 congestion index remains at its 2007 level and down from a peak of 1.32 in 2005. Institute research engineer Tim Lomax, who initiated the mobility study as a Texas A&M graduate student in 1982 and has been one of its authors ever since, said the 70 miles of tollways that have opened in Austin's suburbs since late 2006 have had something to do with the change.

"But probably the biggest thing we've seen is the economy," Lomax said. "It's a serious drag on everything, and traffic congestion is certainly affected by the economy."

The study, which looked at traffic in more than 400 American cities, shows a similar depressive effect on road congestion nationwide. The overall travel time index, which was 1.25 in 2005, is now at 1.20 . Lomax and the other authors of the 51-page study warn that when economic numbers rise, so will traffic congestion, absent aggressive construction of road and rail projects and other traffic mitigation efforts.

"We recommend a balanced and diversified approach to reduce congestion - one that focuses on more of everything," the report said.

Austin, as in previous reports, fares better nationally on other congestion measures in the report.

The authors calculated a "commuter stress index" that looks only at the rush hour delay percentage in the main direction of travel (northbound on Interstate 35 from South Austin and Hays County in the morning, for instance, and southbound in the afternoon) and thus has higher numbers than the travel time index.

Austin's stress index for 2010 is 1.38 , putting it at eighth in the country. Houston traffic has a stress index of 1.40 , according to the report.

Austin's congestion cost, a measure that includes lost productivity and excess fuel from time spent idling in traffic, ranks 28th nationally, and the annual delay per commuter of 38 hours (about nine minutes per weekday) puts Austin at 15th .

Austin's congestion is heavily influenced by the presence of I-35 and all the cross-country traffic that flows through Austin on it, Lomax said.

San Antonio, by contrast, fared much better with a travel time index of 1.18 , which ranked 26th nationally , and a commuter stress index of 1.27 , which ranked 28th nationally .

"The couple of decades that ( Austin) spent not building roads hoping people would not come, San Antonio spent that time building roads," he said. "They expanded I-10 and 410. They've got more ways through town."

bwear@statesman.com; 445-3698

(GRAPHIC BOX: SEE MICROFILM)

Traffic easing in Austin

 Austin rises to 3rd on bad traffic list, though level of congestion has idled

Ben Wear

Publication Date: January 21, 2011  Page: A01  Section: MAIN  Edition: Final

Austin has the third-worst traffic in the United States, at least according to one of several measures in the latest edition of a mobility report put out periodically by the Texas Transportation Institute .

That would mean Austin's traffic is worse than in not only Dallas and Houston, but also New York and Chicago. Only Los Angeles and Washington have worse traffic than Austin, according to the Urban Mobility Report released Thursday.

That is a notable departure from the last such report, put out in July 2009, by the Texas A&M University-based research institute, which said Austin's 2007 "travel time index" - the percentage increase for a trip at rush hour compared with an identical trip in the middle of the night - ranked 20th in the country.

However, several of the report's other rankings, which take into account the actual distance people commute, tend to put Austin and its suburbs somewhat farther down the list.

For instance, an average Austin-area commuter lost 39 hours to traffic congestion in 2009 (the most recent year in the report), putting Austin 15th among 101 cities listed. That would be about 10 minutes per work day, five minutes for each trip.

Moreover, Austin's 2009 travel time index of 1.28 - meaning a rush-hour trip takes 28 percent longer than an identical trip with free-flowing traffic - is slightly lower than the 2007 number in the previous report: 1.29 . In 2005, the travel time index was 1.32 .

The decline reflects a nationwide trend of fewer cars on the road since the start of the economic downturn.

"I don't think there's a single commuter in Austin who needs an institute to tell them there's a traffic problem here," said Mark Nathan , Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell's chief of staff. "And whether we're 15th, 12th, 10th or third, we're in the midst of a very serious traffic crisis."

So, if the report shows Austin's traffic slightly improving, how did its ranking get worse?

Simply put, the data used and the formulas applied to that data changed since the last report, said Tim Lomax , senior researcher with the transportation institute. He has been an author of the report since its inception 29 years ago.

In the past, the report was based only on daily traffic counts taken on highways and major streets in cities around the country. The authors would massage the data using a complicated set of assumptions about how those traffic counts and each city's road network would react to those volumes of vehicles.

This year, for the first time, the transportation institute had actual traffic speed data, calculated from GPS devices in government and company vehicle fleets as well as some iPhones whose users allowed that information to be collected. That information caused the A&M researchers to rejigger some of their formulas.

The result was that Austin's travel time index essentially idled, while those of huge cities tended to fall precipitously. Austin shot up the list.

Politically, the No. 3 ranking counts as something of a mixed blessing. For years in the mobility report, Austin's congestion was the worst among a list of medium-sized cities. ( Austin is no longer considered medium-sized in the report.) Officials pushing for various transportation initiatives - such as toll roads, commuter rail and higher gas taxes - pointed to that dubious honor to support spending for their agendas.

This ranking could serve as an even more dramatic rhetorical tool. Urban rail advocates and supporters of more highways have already seized on the report as justification for more rail or roads to alleviate congestion.

For others, the traffic itself is what matters, not the ranking.

"I definitely don't take joy in seeing a metric like that," said Jeremy Martin , senior vice president of government relations with the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce . "But it is imperative that we work with all levels of government to improve transportation and mobility here in Central Texas, and this just provides additional information about the problems we face."

Lomax and his fellow researchers freely acknowledge that their methods have constantly evolved through the decades. But this addition of the speed information from a company called INRIX - Lomax said the donated data could be worth as much as $1 million - is the most significant refinement in the study's history.

Next year, he said, the institute expects to get speed data for every 15 minutes rather than the hourly figures used this time.

That will, of course, lead to a further adjustment.

He cautioned against Austinites fixating on the ranking and the time travel index.

"You've got to look at all the measures," he said. "You can't just look at one."

bwear@statesman.com; 445-3698

(BOX)

Travel delay

These are the 2009 travel time index figures for Austin and a sampling of other metro areas in the Urban Mobility Report. A travel time index of 1.2 5 means that a rush-hour trip takes 25 perce nt more time than that trip would take in the middle of the night. Thus, a 40-minute trip at 2 a.m., if the index is 1.25, would take 50 minutes during rush hour.

City*                        Travel time in dex

Los Angeles                        1.38

Washington                        1.30

Austin                                1.28

New York/Newark, N.J.                1.27

Chicago                        1.25

Houston                        1.25

Dallas-Fort Worth                1.22

Boston                                1.20

Average of 101 metro areas        1.20

Philadelphia                        1.19

San Antonio                        1.16

El Paso                                1.15

McAllen                                1.09

Corpus Christi                        1.07

* In each case, the area studied is the contiguously developed metro area, even if (as is the case with New York) that crosses state lines.

Study: Car congestion eased off in 2007

Researchers attribute decline to rising gas prices, recession

Ben Wear

Publication Date: July 8, 2009  Page: A01  Section: MAIN  Edition: Final

Traffic congestion has decreased, in Austin and nationwide, disrupting a decades-long trend, according to a study released today by the Texas Transportation Institute.

The Texas A&M University-based authors credit the decline in 2007 - the study bases its conclusions on data collected that year - to gasoline prices and the beginning of the recession.

And though they predict the gas prices of 2008 and sputtering economy should show further decreased congestion in Austin and nationwide when they compile data from those years, the authors caution against interpreting recent results as the start of a trend.

Some of the data in the report, however, indicate that traffic congestion and related delays have been essentially flat nationwide since 2004 .

The authors say, for instance, that the average rush hour travel time index for the country has been 1.25 - meaning a rush hour trip takes 25 percent longer than a free-flowing trip - every year since 2004 .

In Austin, the travel time index was 1.29 in both 2004 and 2007.

That buttresses to some degree a study released in December by the Washington-based Brookings Institution that examined highway traffic counts over many years and concluded that the time Americans spend in their cars, on a per capita basis, flattened as early as 2000 and has been decreasing since 2005 . Gas prices in 2005 were generally in the low $2 per gallon range, and the economy was still growing.

The researchers at the Brookings think tank concluded that more profound changes in how we live and work might be affecting how we drive.

"I would probably agree with that," said David Schrank , a transportation researcher at the Texas Transportation Institute who for many years has co-authored with Tim Lomax the Urban Mobility Report released today.

The influx of women into the work force in the 1980s and 1990s along with increasing suburban development helped balloon rush hour traffic, trends that some researchers say have leveled off. And Schrank notes that the information technology revolution over the past 10 years has increased telecommuting, which keeps a certain slice of workers off the roads each day.

But he said that even with the slight decrease of traffic in the 2004 to 2007 period, the report concludes that the American work force lost 4.2 billion hours to traffic delays in 2007 and wasted 2.8 billion gallons of fuel.

Austin-area commuters lost 22.8 million hours and wasted 15.6 million gallons of fuel, according to the report.

"Those are still huge numbers that it's a shame we waste in our society," Schrank said.

The figures, both in the transportation institute and Brookings studies, raise the question of how state transportation departments and other officials should spend the shrinking pool of dollars available from gasoline taxes.

The authors recommend spending on both road and transit improvements, as well as on technology to allow emergency officials to respond to and clear the roadway of wrecks and debris that cause traffic backups.

Austin has shed the title of "most congested midsized city in America" after almost a decade of ignominy in the institute's reports. The authors have now officially moved Greater Austin into the large city category, which is defined as metro areas with 1 million to 3 million residents.

The Austin area, which has almost 1.6 million residents, has actually been above 1 million for some time.

But Schrank and Lomax count only contiguous areas of dense population, and when the last report came out two years ago, they had the Austin area at 855,000 residents. Now, Schrank said, Greater Austin is credited for the purposes of the study with 1.04 million people.

Austin's travel time index in 2007 was 1.29 , the authors say, with a corresponding annual rush hour delay time of 39 hours for the average commuter. That is unchanged from 2006, and slightly down from the 1.31 index and 40 hours of delay in 2005 . Schrank said the decrease mostly had to do with bringing in more suburban roads and suburbanites into the calculations.

That compares to travel time indexes of 1.49 for Los Angeles, the highest in the report, 1.37 for the New York metro area, 1.33 for Houston, 1.32 for Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington and 1.23 for San Antonio.

The study's calculations are based on traffic counts taken by state and local governments, as well as the local road network and population counts. The authors don't actually observe traffic or put a stopwatch on real-world commutes.

Adding more people and less congested outlying roads would tend to lower the calculated numbers, Schrank said.

Austin opened about 70 miles of tolled highways in late 2006 and 2007.

Schrank said the toll roads likewise might have affected the congestion numbers, but he couldn't say to what degree.

bwear@statesman.com, 445-3698

(GRAPHIC)

Austin's traffic eases (see microfilm)

Think Austin has traffic problems? It does, study says

Ben Wear

Publication Date: September 19, 2007  Page: A01  Section: MAIN  Edition: Final

That Greater Austin is "the most congested medium-sized city in America" has become something of a mantra among local transportation officials, a handy fact used to justify or oppose toll roads, promote green measures or, this week, attack a proposed bus fare increase.

The Texas Transportation Institute , in its biennial Urban Mobility Report released Tuesday, once again puts the Austin metro area in that dubious position, giving it a congestion index of 1.31 . That figure, which means a rush-hour trip takes 31 percent more time than the same journey at off-peak hours, puts Austin and its suburbs atop 30 metro areas designated as medium-sized.

Overall, the Austin area, 49th in population among the 85 cities studied, has the 15th worst congestion, the study says.

However, the criteria used for putting Austin in that "medium" group lists the Austin-area population as 855,000 , well less than the 1.45 million people whom the U.S. Census Bureau says lived in the area in 2005 , the year studied in the report.

The reason for the discrepancy is that the institute bases its calculations on adjoining "urbanized areas," rather than entire metropolitan areas.

A town such as Georgetown or San Marcos that has slivers of rural areas separating it from the central city would fall out of the study area.

Austin traffic, according to the report, has worsened steadily through the years. In 1982, Austin's congestion index was 1.07 , causing about a minute and a half of delay on what would be a 20-minute trip outside of rush hour. By 1992, that number had increased only slightly to 1.12.

But in 2000, after the high-tech boom of the late 1990s, the index had reached 1.24 in Austin, five extra minutes for that 20-minute trip.

The estimated delay on that 20-minute jaunt now would be just over six minutes .

And in those 23 years, according to the report, the percentage of the local road system experiencing congestion during rush hours has grown from 21 percent to 55 percent . The hours of such congestion, it says, have grown from three hours in 1982 to 7.2 hours now.

Austin's congestion puts the area's traffic tangle above much larger cities, including Detroit, Boston and Philadelphia. Among Texas cities, the Austin area's travel time index is worse than San Antonio's 1.23 index and not much better than Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston, which came in at 1.35 and 1.36, respectively.

Because the data in the 2007 study date to 2005, the 61.5 miles of four- and six-lane tollways that came online in the north and east sections of the metro area in the past year do not figure into the ratings. Austin's index could improve when the next report comes out in 2009.

"Something to look forward to," said study co-author Tim Lomax , a research engineer at the Texas A&M University-based institute. "The key would be how much traffic is on those new lane-miles."

Traffic has been heavier than expected on all four tollways but is still light on the longest, Texas 130.

The effect of the commuter rail line opening late next year - if there is one, given that ridership initially is estimated to be just 2,000 boardings a day - would not be reflected in the report for several years.

The institute has been studying urban traffic and issuing the mobility report since 1982 Lomax and his associate, David Schrank, do not literally time people's commutes but use traffic counts along with specific highway and public transit data.

Congestion, Lomax and Schrank say in the report, is a problem in all American cities and is getting worse.

"The solution to this problem is really to consider all the solutions," the report says. "One lesson from more than 20 years of mobility studies is that congestion relief is not just a matter of highway and transit agencies building big projects."

The authors recommend a combination of such expensive construction and additional strategies - telecommuting, flexible working hours, more public transportation, clearing accident scenes faster, strategic construction to eliminate "choke points" in the highway system - to create "a balanced and diversified approach to reduce congestion." According to their calculations, the public transit in Austin in 2005 - bus service, mainly, and some van pools - reduced Austin's travel time index from 1.34 to 1.31. That amounts to about a minute saved for everyone else on a 30-minute trip.

Above all, the authors say, "realistic expectations are also part of the solution. Large urban areas will be congested. Some locations near key activity centers in smaller urban areas will be congested. But congestion does not have to be an all-day event."

bwear@statesman.com, 445-3698