public transportation

Expensive on-campus and West Campus housing pushes students struggling with the rising costs of college to look farther off for affordable living. Many of these include African-American students, who make up a meager 5 percent of the student population, and an increasing number of Hispanic students. While our campus encourages diversity, the lack of support for transportation options that would ultimately increase minority affordability seems to contradict this priority. The city should work to make transportation equal for all areas to ensure affordability and accessibility of Austin, with Proposition 1, the local urban rail proposal, being the first step of many that need to be taken.

For those without the option of a car, public transportation is often the only means of transit. Historically, infrastructure segregated white and black Austin between the west and east, respectively, but modern development and rising costs are pushing minorities even further east. In communities that don’t have an East to West connection, limited transportation options inhibit commutes to work outside of their community, distant schools and even suitable grocery stores, as many eastern neighborhoods are food deserts with only convenience stores as sustenance options. The lack of adequate public transportation options isolate poorer communities, further distancing them from interaction and representation on a municipal level.

Congestion is usually given as the main concern when defending public transportation. Capital Metro buses assist many as an alternative to car trips that cost the average Austinite 40 additional hours per year in traffic. But this emphasis evades the importance of accessibility. Discontinued bus routes have hurt students in particular. Specifically, the disappearance of the Wickersham and Cameron Road shuttles hurt students looking to lease in an affordable area but rely on the bus as their only way to school. The current urban rail proposal would be especially beneficial for the many students residing at the Riverside student apartments, which are significantly less expensive than their closer West Campus counterparts. 

City transportation discussions often revolve around public transportation as a means to address traffic issues and rapid growth, but rarely is equal accessibility even mentioned, much less made a priority. The new District 1 Council member will no doubt give a voice to these communities and bring accessibility to the forefront of the Austin equality conversation, but a “yes” to Proposition 1 would be a step in the right direction to expand public transportation and begin a pattern of prioritizing accessibility for traditionally overlooked and underserved communities. The city needs to be made accessible in all directions, not leaving low-income neighborhoods out of options.

Griffin is a journalism freshman from Houston.

The Mopac Improvement Plan is in the process of adding an express lane to the three existing lanes of traffic in three different locations throughout the greater Austin area. After studying 12 different uses of express lanes in metropolitan areas across the United States, the Mopac Improvement Project endeavors to use three different express lanes throughout Austin to diffuse traffic during rush periods and create quicker routes for public transportation and emergency vehicles. Although use of the express lane comes at a cost to citizens who choose to use it, the express lane will be a positive first step in diffusing Austin’s notorious traffic problem.

The construction of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority’s brainchild is an expensive project. A partnership between the Texas Department of Transportation and the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization has granted more than $199.5 million to the project, and the Mobility Authority has pledged to deposit $230 million into a regional infrastructure fund over the next 25 years. Luckily, taxpayers will not bear the brunt of financing a project that will benefit countless drivers throughout Austin. The only Austinites who will literally pay for the express roads are those that choose to use them. According to the Mopac Improvement Project, use of the express road will be governed by a variable toll that can fluctuate between 25 cents and $4 depending on road congestion at the time of use. Such high prices for use of the toll road are meant to keep the express lanes moving, not to generate revenue, thereby maintaining the integrity of the project’s purpose.

The only foreseeable problem with the project is that the option to use the express lanes and expedite traffic during peak hours will overcome the consumer cost of the variable toll. As the project’s overview site states, the express lanes are not meant for everyday use and the lanes will not have the capacity to benefit every driver who wants to use them. Additionally, because the project is meant to benefit Austin’s public transportation systems and emergency vehicles, both of which may make use of the lanes free of charge, overwhelming numbers of everyday commuters who elect to use the express lanes threaten to defeat one of the project’s initial purposes. The implementation, however, of a variable toll from the outset suggests the Mopac Improvement Project’s administrators are willing to raise the cost of using the road. Doing so would deplete the number of willing users and preserve the express lanes’ purpose. Austinites should not become wary of the express lanes before the project has a chance to succeed.

The biggest point that should be made about the express lanes is that, in addition to public transportation and emergency vehicles, the project’s beneficiaries could number in the thousands. With three different express lanes located in the greater Parmer Lane area, between RM 2222 and Far West Boulevard and between Cesar Chavez and Fifth streets, thousands of Austin residents have the option to take advantage of the express lanes for little personal cost depending on the time of use. While most independent drivers may choose not to make use of the express lanes now at their disposal, they will no doubt feel the benefits of the express lanes because of those who do. Additionally, the express lanes can impact enormous change for individuals during emergency situations by freeing the roads for police cars and ambulances when such vehicles would have otherwise been at the mercy of Austin traffic. The Mopac Improvement Project has found real solutions to Austin’s enormous traffic problem in a way that is mutually beneficial for the Project and Austin voters with no cost to Texas taxpayers.

Smith is a history junior from Austin.

Without a doubt, rail is a polarizing issue in Austin politics. On Tuesday, Student Government passed a resolution declaring support for Proposition 1, the Green Line urban rail and bond proposal. In July, given information and perspectives of the moment, this editorial board begrudgingly offered its endorsement for Project Connect’s urban rail plan. After further consideration and deliberation, it is only with sincere disappointment that this board must withhold our endorsement of Proposition 1, to be voted on this November.

While $600 million of the bond will go toward rail, $400 million of the bond is earmarked for road improvements. Perhaps an effort to shove a sub-par rail proposal down the public’s throat by enticing them with bundled road funds, the bundling of these two projects is unfortunate. Roads need improvement to alleviate traffic, and this disapproval of Proposition 1 should not be taken as disapproval of road improvement. Rather, the flaws of the urban rail plan outweigh the benefits of the linked road improvements.

There are two facts about public transportation that must be acknowledged before moving forward.  First, the purpose of public mass transit, contrary to many pro-rail advertising campaigns, is not to ease congestion of personal vehicles. Public transportation provides an alternative to congestion, but it will never be the solution. Second, like public schools and municipal parks, public transportation is a necessary public service, not meant to be inherently profitable but sustainable enough to facilitate the everyday travel of a functioning community. With these two considerations, we must avoid auto-centric, capitalistic conversation regarding urban rail.

The route north of the river has caused the most controversy. While Project Connect, the plan’s creator, constantly touts the ‘data-driven’ plan, we question the metrics used in this designation. Project Connect used projected, as opposed to current, density data to drive its route proposal. Areas surrounding the Red Line have not seen this projected density growth that justified its creation, and we fear that, if passed, the Green Line will suffer a similar fate.

Capital Metro often references the “success” of the Red Line to boost confidence in voters that it can handle this new project. Though riders and Francine Pares, communications manager at Capital Metro, testify that at peak hours the Red Line is so full that there is standing room only, this is not a viable metric for measuring the real success of the line. Initial ridership projections of the Red Line estimated 3,000-4,000 riders per day growing to eventually 8,000-10,000 daily. In August, Pares said “more than 60,000 MetroRail trips are taken each month,” but keep in mind that a single person can make multiple trips in a day. This averages to around 2050 trips per day, less than initial estimates and nowhere close to projected growth. The fact that the Red Line has standing room only is a testament to the size of the vehicle rather than true demand. The “success” of the Red Line is dubious at best.

Furthermore, central corridor advocates overemphasized the risk of losing possible Federal Transit Administration funding, necessary for the current rail proposal, if they proposed a Lamar-Guadalupe route. They argue that because the city had just installed Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) using FTA funds on the same route, a request for funding on this route would be rejected. In addition to the explicit grant language containing provisions for future development funding along the BRT route disproving this claim, Scott Morris from Our Rail group provided a memo obtained from Capital Metro where an FTA representative is quoted saying the administration would consider funding for development along the BRT route should the city introduce new priorities.

With this new proposal, many look back nostalgically on the 2000 light rail proposal, thinking, “If only we had known!” This redesigned route of this current proposal is a reaction to the 2000 “rail fail,” attempting to the address issues that led a narrow margin of 2,000 more people to vote “no” at the turn of the century. But Austin has changed, and this proposal has not adequately adapted. More people than ever understand the need for comprehensive public transportation improvements. It’s a curious fact, and a daunting omen, that so many rail advocates have come out against this rail plan. Though we support transit initiatives that will make our city livable and affordable, we oppose this proposal.

Auto-centric mentality primary deterrent to public transportation initiatives

Traffic backs up on I-35 south of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. during rush hour. 
Traffic backs up on I-35 south of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. during rush hour. 

Congestion is the buzzword when talking about Austin traffic, most notably in the discussion of Austin’s growth. The Texas A&M Transportation Institute’s 2013 study on I-35 traffic predicted the commute in a personal vehicle from Round Rock to Austin would reach 3 hours by 2035 despite efforts to improve the flow of traffic. That amount of time is intolerable in a car.

The TAMU Institute also conducted a poll this year and found that only 38 percent of Texans agreed with the statement “public transportation reduces congestion.” While not surprising, the study involves a flawed premise: that the purpose of public transportation is to reduce congestion for commuters in personal vehicles. Of the people surveyed, 91 percent used a personal vehicle as their primary mode of transportation, further evidencing the bias of the respondents.

The mentality that public transportation’s primary purpose is to reduce congestion is flawed. Improvements in public transportation will not reduce congestion, according to the TAMU’s 2013 study, but public transportation can provide an alternative.

Regarding Austin’s urban rail proposal, the general consensus is, again, that it will not solve congestion for the people who continue to use their personal vehicles. But for the people who do decide to use the public transportation options available to them, such as rail that can skip the traffic, congestion is non-existent. The current proposal is the beginning of an expanded network that would eventually reach Round Rock.  Austin is growing, and the mess that is I-35 will only worsen, but with public transportation alternatives, Round Rock residents will have the option to skip the 3-hour commute.

Texas’ stubborn auto-centric mindset, continually prioritizing concerns of unwavering drivers of personal vehicles, will be a detriment to any public transportation initiative because the question will always be, “How will it help me drive my car faster?” when it should be, “How will it help me get where I’m going faster?” From planning to funding to fundamental disputes of development priorities, there are plenty of problems with Austin’s urban rail proposal up for a vote this November. But the fact that the proposal will not solve congestion of personal vehicles is not one of them.

Haight is an associate editor.

District 9 candidates Erin McGann, Kathie Tovo and Chris Riley discuss transportation issues at an Austin City Council forum Thursday evening.

Photo Credit: Rachel Zein | Daily Texan Staff

The three candidates vying to be the first District 9 representative in the newly restructured Austin City Council discussed public transportation, affordability and Sixth Street safety at a forum Thursday hosted by the city’s Ethics Review Commission and the League of Women Voters.

In 2013, Austin voters approved reformatting the council from six citywide elected members to a district representation system made up of 10 members. The mayor will continue to be elected citywide. Under the new system, much of the University, downtown Austin, West Campus and Hyde Park are located in District 9. The new council will be elected in November and take office in January. 

Council members Kathie Tovo and Chris Riley, and Erin McGann, a program supervisor in the Department of Criminal Justice, are competing for the first District 9 council seat. 

At Thursday’s forum, held at the Palmer Events Center, McGann said she was running because the council had become out of touch with the city and criticized its approval of the urban rail. McGann also said the proposed urban rail would not actually decrease traffic, and suggested more parking lots would help alleviate the growing traffic problem.  

“The proposed rail will continue the trend towards unaffordability in Austin,” McGann said. “I will fight to audit all departments for waste, corruptions. We owe it to Austin to be completely transparent in spending and taxes.”

Riley said making bike sharing available at Austin’s larger events would help traffic and parking problems.

“We can make some city facilities available for parking,” Riley said. “I’ve sponsored resolutions to make sure we are appropriately managing those resources. Parking is a resource and it needs to be managed carefully, thoughtfully and responsibly.”

According to Tovo, neighborhoods without off-street parking may have trouble if driveways are small or residents need to find parking for friends.

“One of the things we can do to make sure we can preserve the quality of life in our neighborhoods is to pay attention to things like parking,” Tovo said.

The candidates also addressed affordable housing. Riley said District 9 is a diverse area with need for a wide variety of housing.

“Currently, we’re not doing a very good job of providing the options that are needed to meet every housing need that’s out there,” Riley said. “It serves everyone’s interests to have a great diversity of housing options. District 9 is a great place to provide a model for the rest of the city and for the country.”

Tovo said one way of creating more affordable housing would be preserving older houses, as well as requiring developers to provide housing on-site if applying for the city’s density bonus program. 

“Within District 9, I think we have some good opportunities, one in the area of preservation,” Tovo said.  “We also need to look carefully how we use our density bonus programs. We lost millions of dollars of money that could have been used for affordable housing.”

McGann addressed Sixth Street and the safety issues that accompany its popularity.

“I would like to see Austin have a sobriety center,” McGann said. “The center would allow access to people who are not necessarily breaking the law but need somewhere safe if they cannot go home.”

Tovo said the importance of Sixth Street to Austin makes it more imperative to improve safety in the area.

“People need to feel comfortable eating and enjoying the nightlife,” Tovo said. “We need to make sure we have adequate officers in the street.”

On Wednesday, the mayoral candidates for the upcoming November election participated in a debate presented by KLRU and the Urban Land Institute. Although the discussion featured a variety of questions posed by moderator Jennifer Stayton, the conversation was consumed by the topic of transportation.

Stayton started the debate by asking the candidates about Proposition 1 — a more than $1 billion transportation bond proposal that would create a 9.5-mile light rail transit line. While the proposal would lead to what could be considered a more efficient and more modern method for public transportation, $400 million of the proposed funding would go toward road improvements.

During the debate, candidates Randall Stephens and Todd Phelps expressed opposition to Proposition 1, but unfortunately did not provide any viable alternative. In response to a statement by fellow candidate and current City Council member Mike Martinez, explaining Proposition 1’s place in a 50-year traffic solution vision, Stephens dismissed the proposition as insufficient in addressing the urgency of the problem. Phelps, an advocate for roadway expansions, including of Interstate 35, spoke against the increase in property taxes that would ensue, which has already caused a mass exodus of Austin residents. But his battle cry of “35 high and wide” does not help those who depend on efficient public transportation. Candidate Steve Adler expressed support for the proposition, but only because the city needs a solution sooner rather than later. Adler proffered the elitist idea of behavioral changes in the workplace, such as telecommuting and staggered work hours, which could only be applied to jobs in the service sector.

Martinez and current Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole were the only candidates to wholeheartedly support the proposition, unsurprisingly considering their current participation in the City Council, which voted in early August to place the measure on the ballot. But Martinez’s vision for Austin is unrealistic, at least for the near future. “I will continue my work as chairman of the Capital Metro board, and ensure that each year, millions of cars are removed from the road,” Martinez said during the forum. Though more affordable and better for the environment, public transportation is not everyone’s first choice, and his plan to alter public behavior seems to us unfeasible.

But Cole differs from Martinez in that she expressed equal support for roadway projects included in the proposition. “Roads are imperative to present a comprehensive package,” Cole said. This editorial board supports Cole’s advocacy for roadway improvements because while a rail will primarily help with inner city mobility, in the interest of expediency, Cole’s vision is a more pragmatic response to the transportation question.

Steve Adler and Todd Phelps chat after a mayoral debate on campus Wednesday evening. Adler and Phelps were among five mayoral candidates who participated in the debate.

Photo Credit: Ethan Oblak | Daily Texan Staff

Five of Austin’s mayoral candidates answered questions about public transportation Wednesday at a debate held on campus. 

Candidates Todd Phelps, Mike Martinez, Randall Stevens, Sheryl Cole and Steve Adler are running in the first election held under the new 10-ONE system, a plan approved by voters in 2012. The system will expand the city council from seven to 10 members to represent 10 individual geographic districts encompassing the city, in addition to the mayor, which will be voted on in a citywide election.

Mike Martinez, current council member and chair of the Capital Metro Board of Directors, said he would support Proposition 1 as mayor. Proposition 1, as it appears on the ballot, is a proposal for a $600 million rail bond to install an urban rail line in the city from East Riverside to ACC-Highland, passing through the UT campus. The money cannot be used unless the Federal Transit Administration matches funding, and the city garners another $400 million for additional road projects.

“Public transportation is a key component of affordability and helping the middle class in our community,” Martinez said. “I believe there is not a perfect solution for congestion, but we have to start somewhere.”

Todd Phelps disagreed with Martinez’s reasoning and said if the proposition passed it would only benefit a small percentage of the population.

“Even if they can ‘Criss-Angel-mind-freak’ it to the voters, it doesn’t matter if you get 40,000 riders,” Phelps said. “We’re pushing out four times that [amount of] Austinites of all cultures because they can’t afford to live here any longer. As someone who grew up here, I understand the soul of Austin — and that’s the people.”

Sheryl Cole, mayor pro tem and mayoral candidate,  said the proposal is expensive, but stressed that it would address problems throughout Austin.

“I fully recognize that Austinites are concerned about affordability, but there are also concerns about traffic, so we have to give them an option of how to deal with that,” Cole said. “The ballot proposal contemplates $600 million for rail and $400 million for roads. Roads are imperative to present a comprehensive package, and that is why it was important to put something before the voters that would help with congestion.”

During urban rail’s planning, some citizens and students advocated putting the line along Guadalupe Street and Lamar Boulevard. According to Cole, Guadalupe and Lamar were not suggested as rail corridors because a citizen’s committee did not recommend it.

Cameron Lagrone, a public affairs graduate student who attended the debate, said she understood the traffic system more after moving from Northwest Austin to the campus area. 

“I’ve lived in Austin for about a year and a half,” Lagrone said. “I heard there were a lot of candidates for mayor, and it was nice to see it narrowed down and get to know what they’re about. I just wanted to figure out what they were all into.”

Maggie Moore, a community and regional planning graduate student, said she thought some candidates provided more valuable responses than others. 

“The focus on transportation was really great,” Moore said. “Proposition 1 — I’m totally for. I’m a planning student, so the idea that they’re voting on right now is super exciting because it’s just the first part of a big plan. … I was glad to see which candidates were against it because they’re not in a field I would go for.”

The debate will be aired on KLRU at 8 p.m. Thursday and simulcast on KUT.

Photo Credit: Jenna VonHofe | Daily Texan Staff

At a recent meeting, the Austin City Council unanimously adopted the 2014 Austin Strategic Mobility Plan (ASMP), which outlines the “identification of roadways of regional significance, and a locally preferred alternative for urban rail on a route from the East Riverside corridor through Downtown, the Capitol Complex and the University of Texas to Highland/ACC.” The Council is expected to vote Aug. 7 on whether to put a $1 billion bond proposal on the November ballot. If approved, the plan will dedicate $600 million to urban rail in hopes that the Federal Transit Administration will make up the rest of the billion-plus-dollar price tag.

Judging by the pro-light rail groups who appeared at the meeting to oppose the proposition, which, according to them, would not serve the currently densely populated Guadalupe/North Lamar corridor, it seems the preferred alternative is far from locally preferred. But the main controversy surrounding Austin urban rail misses a fundamental requirement.  We have to address the problem of how to get people to leave their cars at home and adopt public transportation as a way of life before multi-million dollar investments are made.

Austin cannot afford to have supporters of light rail opposing a light rail plan. The clash risks a repeat of the narrow loss at the ballot box of a proposed urban rail in 2000. Even if the controversial plan is eventually approved, the disappointing turnout of Red Line riders proves the "Field of Dreams" approach false: If you build it, they won’t necessarily come. When determining the method and map of mass transit, authorities must answer: Who will realistically and reliably take public transportation so it will be a sustainable venture for municipal investments?

I recently returned from a study abroad program in Strasbourg, France, a city with a metropolitan population comparable to Austin, where I exclusively used public transportation to travel around the city. In every major city I visited it wasn’t even a question: I would be using public transportation for my daily commutes. This mentality was incredibly freeing as I had full access to the city without a car.

The European public transportation lifestyle arose from a combination of factors. Public transportation in European cities existed before the invention of cars and was a necessity for city life as the city developed around it. Not only the transportation systems, but also the mentality of a public transportation based lifestyle, have subsequently been maintained. There is not the same level of urban sprawl, so people have never truly needed their cars, thus remaining luxuries. An economic incentive to leave the European car at home: gas prices are more than double U.S. prices, which can be attributed to an abnormally low federal US tax on petroleum.

But we live in a car-centric society. Following the pattern of cities across the country, Austin grew with its suburbs and the car has been the primary means of transportation for decades. Squeezed between two highways, Interstate Highway 35 and MoPac Boulevard, Austin was never meant to grow. Austin faces historical infrastructural obstacles as it has grown into a destination rather than a rest stop. Compared to European cities that have public transportation incorporated into their collective history, Austin has to work backward to reintroduce it to the mentality of the city.

I don’t believe any group has sufficiently addressed how to change our societal car obsession. Step one is to provide transportation to and from places people want to go — an area where the current rail has undeniably failed, and with the infighting of current rail advocates, the ASMP seems headed in the same direction. You also have to provide transportation when riders want it, a difficult task compared to a car that can go whenever you need it. Environmental factors are also an issue; a half mile walk to a bus stop is almost pleasant on a beautiful day but unbearable in over 100˚F heat. To change the car-centric mentality, each issue needs to be successfully addressed to surpass the conveniences of personal transportation.

The urgency for a transportation solution is palpable, but if the light rail, which would cost more than $1 billion, is built and fails, the transportation department will lose significant credibility with the public and it will be disastrous for any future rail projects. The transportation mentality in Austin needs to change before we can make such a risky, expensive investment, and just building a light rail will not automatically change it. Austin needs to gradually change its transportation mentality through continued improvements to existing systems, gaining the confidence of Austin riders who will eventually be prepared to adopt a public transportation lifestyle and fully support future light rail propositions.

Haight is a linguistics senior from Austin.

Correction: An earlier version of this column was attributed to the wrong author.

Austin Police Department Police Chief Art Acevedo called for a group of public transportation, law enforcement and criminal justice officials to discuss ways to reduce DWI incidents after a drunk driver killed a pedestrian in South Austin on Saturday, according to police. 

In a press conference Monday, Acevedo said the department has reported 22 fatal crashes this year, 12 of which involved alcohol or other drugs.

“As we continue to have more bars in our city, we continue to be the No. 1 drinking city in the state of Texas, despite the fact that we are not the largest city in the state of Texas,” Acevedo said. “I’m calling for the state, the county, the city and all of our partners in transportation and in criminal justice to come together and talk about how we can do better.”

Acevedo said the city needs to explore new and improved modes of transportation, including expanded bus routes, additional taxis and overnight parking.

Acevedo said he believes people who are arrested for DWI are often treated too leniently.

“If you look around Austin, Texas, and you see how many people are killing people drunk driving, they get probation and slaps on the wrist,” Acevedo said. “Enough is enough.”

Acevedo said he hopes to hold the summit during the first two weeks of May.