Transportation
4:13 pm
Thu December 12, 2013

Current Long-Term Plans Do Nothing to Improve Austin’s I-35 Headaches

This article is written by KUT’s reporting partner the Austin Monitor (formerly In Fact Daily). Below, listen to an interview with author Mark Richardson. 

Current long-term plans – such as the 2035 CAMPO Transportation Plan – will do little more than maintain the current level of traffic bottlenecks on Interstate 35 and won’t take enough vehicles off the road to significantly cut commute times, according to a report on traffic congestion on the I-35 corridor through Austin.

The report, Long-Term Central Texas IH 35 Improvement Scenarios, was done by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute as part of a study ordered by the 83rd Texas Legislature. It is a comprehensive look at long-term strategies to alleviate traffic congestion on I-35 between Buda and Round Rock.

Ginger Goodin, a traffic engineer with the  A&M Institute’s Austin office, told Travis County Commissioners Tuesday that the report’s conclusion is grim: if residential and employment growth each continue on their current pace through 2035, Central Texas faces a future of extreme traffic congestion on IH 35.

“What we did was to take the CAMPO 2035 plan, we built a network for the Central Texas region, we used the demand model from the CAMPO plan, then we made changes to I-35 to see what they would do,” she said. “The context is that the population of Central Texas is expected to double in the next 25 years, and the current traffic plan is not sustainable.”

The CAMPO 2035 plan is a series of regional road improvements planned by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization in 2010 to be implemented by the year 2035. An update to the plan, CAMPO 2040, will be considered in 2015.

Goodin said the study is the result of a computer modeling exercise that looked at current short- and medium-term plans to deal with congestion on I-35. The authors, using the 2035 CAMPO plan as a baseline, offered a series of seven scenarios in which traffic flow on I-35 might be reduced. The scenarios range from adding Express and HOV lanes with dynamic tolling to adding up to three new lanes in both directions constructed under the current roadway between Buda and Round Rock.

But the report also suggests that Central Texas will not be able to build its way out of the problem. It instead suggests that in addition to infrastructure changes, officials will have to find ways to change the travel behavior of local residents. The A&M study projects a three-hour commute from Round Rock to downtown Austin by 2035, which it says would likely be considered unacceptable by commuters and businesses alike.

The study says changes in where businesses locate, increases in the cost of commuting and access to alternative sources of transportation will be needed in order to bring the necessary changes in behavior to affect the traffic patterns.

“A hybrid approach involving capacity increases and demand pattern changes will almost certainly be required,” Goodin said. “The demand appears too large for any single congestion strategy.”

The report suggests a multi-faceted approach, including:

  • Adding and managing capacity through HOV lanes with dynamic tolling;
  • Shifting 40 percent of region-wide work commuter trips to work-at-home jobs;
  • Reducing commuter trips to the University of Texas and other colleges and universities by 30 percent region-wide, using technology options to replace the in-class experience;
  • Reducing retail shopping trips by 10 percent region-wide, replacing them with online shopping.
  • Shifting trips to off-peak periods; and
  • Increasing HOV, transit, and non-motorized usage each by 25 percent, decreasing auto vehicle usage.

The report also suggests that local officials work to expand alternate models of travel, including bus, rail and others; develop other primary corridors such as US 183, SH 130, RM 620 and others; expand capacity on Austin’s east-west thoroughfares, such as Red River, North Lamar and Burnet Road; and explore options of additional traffic capacity running parallel to I-35.

The report did not deal with the issue of what any of its suggestions might cost, other than to note that the tunneling option could cost in the tens of billions of dollars and present serious environmental and engineering challenges.

However, Commissioner Gerald Daugherty said cost is what is keeping local officials from taking many of the steps outlined in the report.

“I do think that we have some dangerous terminology that comes up when we talk about mobility and transportation,” said Daugherty. “It’s ‘all options are on the table.’ To me that’s very dangerous unless you apply a cost-benefit to that, you have a problem. ‘All options’ is a sell-able phrase. But resources are the problem. Let’s face it: if we had the resources, we could do a tunnel, we could do a lot of things where you could overcome a lot of these problems. But our dollars come from TxDOT, which gets them from the gasoline tax. And cars are becoming more efficient and therefore the pool of dollars is shrinking.”

But Commissioner Bruce Todd looked at it from a different perspective.

“You talk about a cost-benefit analysis . . . We will have a cost benefit analysis when the first big employer doesn’t come to Austin because of the traffic,” he said. “And we’re on the verge of that. We need to find a way get behavioral changes. But we can’t just take this report and say ‘Good information,’ and let it go at that. We have to come up with those things that will address our traffic problems in a positive way.”

The full report is available at http://mobility.tamu.edu/mip/.