Why Central Austinites Should Support Toll Roads

Excerpted from a discussion on the austin-bikes email list, where one of my self-appointed burdens is to be the voice of reason towards those who live in the center-city echo chamber (where everybody bikes; where nobody wants sprawling highways; etc).

The last paragraph of my response is the most relevant piece, and the one that the person I was responding to and many other wishful thinkers just don’t get. I, thanks to moving here with suburbanites, and working with exclusively suburbanites, have learned the following painful truths:

  • There are more suburbanites around here than urbanites. A LOT more. And the most recent election, they finally WON a seat in our city council (McCracken over Clarke) DESPITE much higher turnout in the center-city.
  • Outside Austin, there are no urbanites. CAMPO is now 2/3 suburban, for instance.
  • Suburbanites cannot conceive of any lifestyle other than the suburban one. Really. I get blank stares when I tell them I rode the bus to work today, or when I say I walked to the store.
  • The sheer population and geographical coverage of suburban neighborhoods means that even if gas gets really expensive, they’re still going to be living there. Resistance to their redevelopment in ways which aren’t so car-dependent and the cost of such modifications means we’re stuck with what we have now for at least a few more decades. Yes, even at $5.00/gallon.

Here’s the thread:

Roger Baker wrote:
> On Mar 4, 2005, at 9:34 AM, Mike Dahmus wrote:
>
>     Roger Baker wrote:
>
>         McCracken is the immediate hero here, but he likely wouldn't
>         have done it without Sal Costello, SOSA, and all the
>         independent grassroots organizing.
>
>         On CAMPO, McCracken's resolution got defeated about 2 to 1,
>         with Gerald Daugherty on the bad side, along with CAMPO
>         Director Aulick. TxDOT's Bob Daigh deserves a special bad
>         actor award for expressing his opinion just before the CAMPO
>         vote, with no reasons given, that any independent study of the
>         CAMPO plan would be likely to threaten TxDOT funding for our
>         area. -- Roger
>
>
>     Just like the transit people in Austin with Mike Krusee, you've
>     been completely snookered if you think these people are your friends.
>     The goal of McCracken et al is NOT to stop building these roads;
>     it is to build these roads quickly as FREE HIGHWAYS.
>     In other words, McCracken and Costello ___ARE___ THE ROAD LOBBY!
>     Keep that in mind, folks. Slusher and Bill Bunch don't want the
>     roads at all, but pretty much everybody else who voted against the
>     toll plan wants to build them as free roads.
>     And these highways built free is a far worse prospect for Austin
>     and especially central Austin than if they're built as toll roads,
>     in every possible respect.
>     - MD
>
>
> All that is easy for Mike to say but, as usual, lacks any factual basis or
> documentation. Furthermore, he does not appear to read what I have previously
> documented.

(my response):

As for factual basis or documentation, it should be obvious to anybody with the awareness of a three-year-old that McCracken’s playing to his suburban constituents who WANT THESE ROADS, AND WANT THEM TO BE FREE, rather than Slusher’s environmentalist constituents, who don’t want the roads at all.

As for reading what you’ve previously documented; oh, if only it were true. If only I hadn’t wasted a good month of my life reading your repeated screeds about the oil peak which have almost convinced me to go out and buy an SUV just to spite you.

POLITICAL REALITY MATTERS. The suburban voters who won McCracken his seat over Margot Clarke WANT THESE HIGHWAYS TO BE BUILT. AND THEY DON’T WANT THEM BUILT AS TOLL ROADS BECAUSE THEY’LL HAVE TO PAY (MORE) OF THE BILL IF THEY DO.

Here’s what’s going to happen if Roger’s ilk convinces the environmental bloc to continue their unholy alliance with the suburban road warriors like McCracken and Daugherty:

  1. We tell TXDOT we don’t want toll roads.
  2. TXDOT says we need to kick in a bunch more money to get them built free.
  3. We float another huge local bond package to do it (just like we did for local ‘contributions’ for SH 45, SH 130, and US 183A).
  4. The roads get built, as free highways.
  5. Those bonds are paid back by property and sales taxes, which disproportionately hit central Austinites, and especially penalize people who don’t or only infrequently drive.

Here’s what’s going to happen if the toll roads get built, as toll roads:

  1. TXDOT builds them.
  2. The current demand for the roadway is large enough to fill the coffers enough to keep the enterprise going without the bonds defaulting.
  3. (Even if #2 doesn’t happen, we’re at worst no worse off than above; with the added bonus that suburbanites still get to finally pay user fees for their trips on the roads).

Here’s what’s going to happen in Roger Fantasyland:

  1. McCracken, Gerald Daugherty, et al have a Come To Jesus moment and decide that we Really Don’t Need Any More Highways In The ‘Burbs.

Now, be honest. Which one of the three scenarios above do you find least likely?

YES, EVEN IF GAS TRIPLES IN PRICE, SUBURBANITES WILL STILL DRIVE. THE OIL PEAK IN THIS SENSE DOESN’T ****MATTER****. The people out there in Circle C aren’t going anywhere in the short term, and it’ll be decades before their neighborhoods are redeveloped in a less car-dependent fashion, assuming we can afford to.

Blame TXDOT

Today’s Statesman is full of people whining that “city planners” didn’t get Ben White / I-35 right.

For those who still don’t get it: NOBODY AT THE CITY OF AUSTIN GETS ONE LICK OF LOUSY INPUT INTO THE DESIGN OF AN INTERCHANGE BETWEEN TWO STATE HIGHWAYS. If the road has a big route number on it (like “2222”, “71”, “290”, “I-35”, “US-183”), the city doesn’t control the road, and TXDOT doesn’t ask for the city’s opinion on things.
The sum total of the involvement of the City is to screw with signal timings at intersections with traffic lights, in a few cases. And in most of those cases, the bad design decisions made independently by TXDOT mean that all the signal timing changes in the world won’t help.

To whit:
Today I biked to work. (Well, I biked to the bus to work; I’ll be biking all the way home). I forgot to pack my lunch. I had a bunch of leftover change in my bike bag, so I walked along this route to the local McDonald’s to get a cheap greasy lunch.

I noticed a pretty long backup, as always, at the Braker intersection. Today, I ended up passing the same stopped cars a couple of times; so I started paying attention. Guess what? I was able to beat a car in the right lane ON FOOT from my office to the other side of the Braker intersection. This wasn’t a twenty-foot trek either. According to Yahoo, this is a quarter-mile jaunt.

Why is this intersection so bad? Why is Ben White’s rebuild so painful? Two words: frontage roads. When TXDOT ‘builds’ a freeway, they’re actually (9 times out of 10) turning an existing arterial roadway (with driveways, strip malls, etc) into a freeway by using the original roadspace for the new main lanes and then widening into property on the sides to build “frontage roads” (one-way streets which the main lanes exit to and enter from).
So what are the problems with frontage roads?

  1. They generate their own traffic – cities (who had to give up a ton of land, and in most cases even PAY for the pleasure) aren’t going to restrict future development along these streets, especially since TXDOT sells them on the idea that they should keep doing so.
  2. They cause poor intersection design. Most intersection with frontage roads must operate with four independent cycles – meaning that the people arriving from each of 4 directions are given exclusive use of the intersection on their green light. (The “intersection” in this case extends to both frontage roads). Two major two-way arterials which intersect, on the other hand, operate with two cycles (one for each road) with minor additional cycles for left turns.
  3. They preclude better interchanges down the road – unless it’s to another freeway. In other states, the intersection at Braker would have long since been upgraded with more space, possibly changed to a SPUI (single-point urban interchange which reduces traffic signal cycles to essentially 3), or possibly improved with a ramp modification, or even adding one or two flyovers… but not here. Here, we’re stuck the way we are. On Ben White, you can build a direct connector ramp (flyover) since there’s another freeway on the other side. On Braker, building a flyover would mean bulldozing everything on one corner of the intersection that located there because of the frontage road.
  4. They actively exclude cyclists, pedestrians, and transit users. Typically fewer crossings are built or preserved on highways with frontage roads (example: US 183 between Spicewood Springs and 620). This is a minor irritant to motorists but completely screws other users of the roadway, since it’s not practical for them to walk a mile down the road, cross at the only remaining crossing for a mile either way (Anderson Mill), and walk back.

What should TXDOT have done in these cases?

Simple: either toughen up and just admit that we can’t preserve property access on what’s supposed to be a limited-access highway, or do what they do in other states – build perimeter roads (that maintain property access from the city streets, not directly from the highway) rather than frontage roads. This would run counter to the ethos that highway construction and expansion exists to promote retail traffic, which is why it’ll never happen in this state, but that’s what it would take.

What Rapid Bus Looks Like In Practice

While researching the last entry, I discovered a site which is a fairly harsh critic of Boston’s transit agency, and this gem of an update on their “Silver Line” BRT project (which restored transit service on a corridor which had elevated rail years before).

I urge anybody interested in transit to read this, especially if you’re tempted to believe that Rapid Bus is going to be a big improvement over current bus service.
(also added them to my links).

Rapid Bus Ain’t Rapid

Earlier this week, Capital Metro included a flyer in copies of the local newspaper which touted Rapid Bus down Lamar/Guadalupe, opening late 2006 or early 2007.
Coincidentally, Wednesday night I had to drop my wife off and pick her up at an appointment which allowed me to travel down Guadalupe from 30th to 6th streets at the extreme tail end of rush hour (6:40 PM). I paid special attention to the ability of cars and buses to navigate through this congested corridor.

First: a short re-hash of what Rapid Bus is:

  • Rapid Bus is not “bus rapid transit”. “bus rapid transit” or BRT in short picks from a set of items off a menu which will supposedly improve the speed, reliability, and attractiveness of bus transit. The hopes are that it will bring bus transit up to the level of a good urban rail line. In practice (in the United States), this has been far from the case – mainly due to the reluctance to set aside dedicated right-of-way for the bus vehicle, which results in poor speed and reliability compared to rail (and poor relative performance compared to the private automobile). Even when bus lanes are created, the fact that they are typically in-street makes them worthless in practice since cars just use them anyways.
  • Capital Metro is certainly moving towards BRT with this line, but even they admit that it’s not good enough to call it BRT yet. (That’s even with the slip-shod definition of BRT which allows for it to be declared even with only a few improvements over normal bus service).
  • In fact, both the existing express buses (which travel down US 183, Mopac, and I-35) and limited buses (which run down normal corridors with fewer stops) already implement some features of BRT. (fewer stops and improved vehicles).

So what characteristics of BRT is Capital Metro including in the design of this new service to make it “Rapid”?

  • Signal prioritization – i.e. the ability to hold traffic signals green for a few seconds as the bus approaches
  • Off-bus fare payment
  • Longer (probably articulated) buses
  • Fewer stops

That’s pretty much it. Items that might help make the service more like a light rail line which are not being included:

  • Dedicated right-of-way
  • Full control over traffic signals – i.e. lights turn green when the vehicle approaches
  • Electic power (overhead “caternary” wires or in-street power)

So how does “Rapid Bus” look to improve service along Lamar/Guadalupe? Like I said, I drove the most congested part of the route just yesterday, and it doesn’t look good.

  • The ability to hold the next light green for 5 or 10 seconds isn’t going to help during rush hour at all! At almost every single intersection with a traffic light, I waited through at least one green cycle before being able to proceed, since traffic was always backed up from further down the road. And this was at 6:40 PM! That means that while the bus can hold the signal at 27th green for a while longer, it doesn’t matter because the backup from 26th, 24th, 23rd, 22nd, 21st, and MLK is preventing the bus from moving anyways.
  • Off-bus payment is going to be irrelevant. Now that Capital Metro is using SmartCards for everything short of single-fare rides, very few people are having to take more than a second to pay when they get on the bus (this is from my own bus rides on the 983 and 3 lately). Basically, paying is no longer slowing the boarding process.
  • Fewer stops is already possible with the #101. This bus is still woefully slow and woefully unreliable compared to the private automobile, to say nothing of quality rail service (which could in fact beat the automobile on both counts).
  • The ride is going to be uncomfortable. The pavement along Guadalupe simply can’t stand the beating it gets from heavy vehicles like buses and trucks – and this is not going to change anytime soon. Rather than running down the middle of the street on rails (as light-rail would have done), the Rapid Bus vehicle will run in the right lane of the street on the same pavement abused by trucks and other buses. There is no evidence that the city is willing to pay the far higher bills required to keep this pavement in smooth-enough condition to provide a decent comfortable bus ride.

In review: The commuter rail line is being built on a corridor where only a handful of Austin residents can walk to stations, and only a small percentage of Austin residents can drive to a station. The primary beneficiaries, assuming shuttle buses don’t just kill the whole thing, are residents of Leander (who at least pay Capital Metro taxes) and Cedar Park (who don’t). On the other hand, the thousands of people in central Austin who could walk to stations along the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor are being presented with a rank steaming turd which barely improves service over the existing #101 bus.
(publically opposing this Mike-Krusee-designed Austin-screwing debacle is the basic reason I was booted from the UTC, for those arriving late).

So, shut up and take it, Austin. Rapid Bus is all you’re getting, and you’d better ride it, or you’ll be experiencing the fun that Honolulu is currently going through with their own BRT debacle. Big ugly long buses that aren’t attracting any new riders don’t do transit users any favors.

References:

New Shoal Creek Report #1

I’m going to try to bike home on Shoal Creek (at least from Anderson to 41st) once a month or so to track the results of the debacle. I plan on executing a polite but firm passing manuever out of the “shared lane” whenever passing a parked car, since there is insufficient space to safely pass a parked car in the space provided (even if you know ahead of time that the vehicle is empty). This passing manuever is likely to generate conflict with through motorists (“conflict” in this sense not meaning emotional or physical but simply that the through motorist behind me will have to slow down and wait for me to pass – although on many occasions on the pre-striped street, the motorist did in fact get angry enough to honk or swerve).

I made my first trip (post-stripe) yesterday (Monday).

The striping is done, but the islands are just getting started – post holes have been cut, and some markings made, but that’s it.

First impressions:

  • When no cars are parked, this lane is really wide. Wider than the usable shoulder on Loop 360.
  • Cars are going to try to use this as a lane, at least the way it’s striped now. When you’re turning onto Shoal Creek, it’s not altogether clear where you should go.
  • Few parking conflicts so far; most of the vehicles that were parked Monday night were parked on the northbound side. I passed four or five parked vehicles on my stretch, and only once did my passing manuever cause a conflict with a through motorist (and this one was polite).
  • When a small car is parked near the curb, there is enough room to pass in the lane, if I could be 100% positive that the car was unoccupied. However, with larger vehicles (SUVs/trucks) this is not true. Also, one of the two cars was parked far enough away from the curb (you get up to 18 inches legally) that it might as well have been a fire engine.

Verdict so far: Not enough data. Far more vehicles were parked northbound; I don’t know why southbound was so comparatively empty yesterday. (Perhaps this side was striped last?).