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$720 million bond is no traffic congestion fix

By   /   September 29, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Tucked right into the middle of the very first proposal made in Austin’s Nov. 8 transportation bond election is a promise to improve traffic signal synchronization.

It’s just one of a good many promises shoehorned into the ordinance passed in August by the Austin City Council. At nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars, no one has suggested that Mayor Steve Adler didn’t keep his promise to Go Big.

City of Austin

SANS AUTO: Mayor Steve Adler’s transportation bond envisions room for everything except cars.

To a generation of newcomers whose collective blood pressure pounds to dangerous levels minutes after entering the city limits by motorized vehicle, it might be the most important and unmet transportation promise.

In a city where no one can agree upon the best breakfast taco or music venue, there is a unified conviction that traffic engineers have for decades been hired solely on their ability to torment the driving public through traffic signal manipulation.

Back in January, when reporters at KUT asked listeners to tell them what they would most like the public radio station to investigate, the top vote-getter — by a wide margin — was why the city seemed incapable of synchronizing its traffic system.

The answer from city engineers is the effort to speed up traffic by synchronizing the lights at intersections has rarely stopped. Every couple of years the city has spent a few million dollars for a study and a fix. Voters approved a $20 million plan as part of a $152 million transportation bond that was supposed to have done the trick.

In 2000.

In a bond package nearly five times as big, nowhere does it say how much of the $720 million will be allocated to alleviating what most Austin residents believe is one of the biggest and most easily correctable causes of traffic congestion.

‘They want the frustration’

Roger Falk thinks that is by design.

Three years ago Falk’s group, the Travis County Taxpayers Union, concluded in its traffic study that truly synchronizing the traffic system would be the key corrective.

Falk figures another $20 million could do the trick this time. Technological breakthroughs in timing optimization could bring real results.

Instead, the thrust of the transportation bond — and more than $480 million of the bond total to back it — is to realize Adler’s reimagining of nine of the city’s major thoroughfares into “smart corridors.”

Adler said in his June proposal, “Everybody will receive something, so the roads will improve for everyone.”

As Falk has analyzed it, the transportation bond does, indeed, offer something for nearly every constituency — pedestrian, bicyclist and mass transit rider — except those who prefer to travel by automobile.

The smart corridors plan is a companion policy to the various permutations of “smart growth,” the high density, vertical development hostile to individuals in cars, Falk said.

“They’re selling this bond as a traffic congestion solution when it isn’t anything of the kind,’ Falk said. “It’s my own personal belief that the powers that be in this town don’t want to solve the traffic problem. They want that frustration. They need it because it works, it motivates people to drive their agenda.”

Falk was out on Wednesday meeting with small business owners in several of these proposed corridors, warning them that the bond proposes no new roads.

The widening of current roadways to accommodate wider medians and the allowance for multi-family and low-income housing projects and resulting spur to gentrification will add to, not alleviate congestion in those corridors, Falk said. The result will be to drive small businesses out, he said.

And as city officials have recently acknowledged to Falk and others, there is no mention on the ballot that the true cost to complete only the smart corridors portion of the master plan is more than $1.5 billion, or more than three times the original estimate and more than twice the total of the entire bond.

The Travis County Taxpayers Union intends to spend the next six weeks leading up to the election spreading the message that the transportation bond is deceptive, dishonest and destructive, Falk said.

“I don’t think a lot of people are informed about what’s in this transportation bond,” Falk said. “Once they are informed, this thing is done.”

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Mark Lisheron was a former Austin-based reporter for Watchdog.org.