transportation

Photo by Callie Hernandez for KUT News

In Austin, it’s illegal to use your cell phone for anything other than phone calls while driving. That includes texting and surfing the internet. The ban went into effect January 1, 2010.

But is the ban making a difference?

The Austin Police Department told KUT that officers have written just 26 citations for texting while driving since the city’s ban took effect.

Cap Metro staff has proposed separate contractors for regualr bus routes and its paratransit services, pictured above.
Photo courtesy Flickr user i-Ride Capital Metro

Today, Capital Metro staff met with the agency Board of Directors to make recommendations on new contractor bids. Monday, the board will make a final decision.

These are the last few steps towards a new labor structure for Capital Metro. The changes are required to comply with a new state law that requires transit employees to either become employees of the state or to become employees of a private contractor. The union that represents most of the employees chose the latter option so they could retain collective bargaining rights.

The board will need to choose one contractor for employees of fixed-route bus services and another for employees of paratransit services (door-to-door services for people with disabilities). The board could also choose to have one contractor employ workers of both services.

A looming labor switchover means Capital Metro will only have about 200 direct employees.
Photo by Emily Donahue for KUT News

This summer, some 850 workers will no longer be directly employed by transit authority Capital Metro, or its non-profit contractor StarTran — instead, they’ll be contracted out to a soon-to-be named private company.

It’s a change that has to be made because of a state law passed last year, requiring transit employees to either become state employees or employees of a private contractor. The union that represents most of the workers chose the contractor option, as to maintain collective bargaining rights.

Tomorrow, staff will recommend to the Capital Metro Board of Directors which of the contractor bids it believes is best. They may recommend one contractor for fixed route services (regular bus lines), and another for paratransit services (door-to-door service for people with disabilities). Staff may also recommend a single contractor for both.

"Americans now walk the least of any industrialized nation in the world," says writer Tom Vanderbilt. To find out why that is, Vanderbilt has been exploring how towns are built, how Americans view walking — and what might be done to get them moving around on their own two feet.

Talking with Morning Edition co-host Steve Inskeep about what is wrong with Americans' relationship with walking, Vanderbilt says, "The main thing is, we're just not doing enough of it."

Pedicab rules regarding insurance, fares and more passed at a City Council meeting today.
Photo courtesy flickr.com/atmtx

While the city regulates and considers improvements to pedicab services, no new permits will be issued for six months. 

Photo by Jeff Heimsath for KUT News

Capital Metro announced today that it has received $38 million from the Federal Transit Administration to help cover the cost of the MetroRapid program.

The funds come from the administration’s "Very Small Start" program and will cover about 80 percent of the program’s $48 million cost, said Linda Watson, the president and CEO of Capital Metro.

“That’s tax money that Texans pay coming back to Texas,” Watson said. “So it’s a great day not only for Capital Metro and our customers, but for Central Texas and taxpayers in the whole state of Texas.”

Shoup photo courtesy shoup.bol.ucla.edu; parking photo by Daniel Reese for KUT News

There’s no such thing as a free lunch – and no such thing as free parking, according to an influential author speaking in Austin today.

The Urban Transportation Commission and City Council Member Chris Riley are hosting a conversation this evening with Donald Shoup. Shoup’s 2005 book, The High Cost of Free Parking, argues that on-street parking is a valuable commodity in cities, and should be priced accordingly to cut down on traffic congestion and pollution.

KUT News spoke with Shoup this morning. He noted the University  of Texas campus was a perfect example of some of the arguments he’s made.

Photo courtesy flickr.com/nffcnnr

A dispute over federal transportation funding has some state and local governments worried. But the Texas Department of Transportation (TXDot) says if funding dries up, Texas can float construction costs for up to three months.

The U.S. Senate passed a $109 billion transportation bill nearly two weeks ago. But since then, the measure has garnered little traction in the House, as Republican legislators have rallied behind an alternate budget with deeper spending cuts, according to Washington DC journal The Hill.

As of this writing, the House just passed a 90-day extension of transportation funding. Should the Senate approve the same measure, it will prevent federal funds from hitting the skids this Saturday.

Callie Hernandez/KUT News

We’re not sure what’s up with today’s Austin City Council meeting, filled with action on several long-simmering items. The council holds another meeting next week before heading into spring break, so it’s not like council has to cram everything into this meeting. But they pretty much did. Here's a rundown:

… And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Lights: Item 15 on the agenda inks an agreement with the RunTex Foundation to sponsor the Trail of Lights, that holiday event at Zilker Park that went dark due to budget cuts. As we wrote earlier this week, many see the proposal as a win-win, while others decry the privatization of a publicly-run event.

Taxi Drivers: Items 30 and 31 award new permits to Austin taxi franchises: 30 more for Lone Star Cab, and 15 more for Austin Cab. The item is up on second reading, meaning should it be successful today, a third and final vote is still required. And the meter’s still running: If and when these 45 are awarded, council is expected to offer an additional 35 new permits this summer.

Image courtesy airportboulevard.com

Airport Boulevard – or at least the bustling but non-scenic stretch of it from the Mueller development to its terminus at North Lamar – may look and function a whole lot differently in the future.

For the past several months, the City of Austin, designers and planners have worked on a plan to beautify the urban thoroughfare, making it more multimodal and pedestrian friendly. Tonight, at a meeting of the city’s Design Commission, we’ll see the result of that work, as the commission discusses and may take action on recommendations in the Airport Boulevard Corridor Study Report.

So why this stretch of asphalt? Its location has several things going for it: The ongoing infill development at the former Mueller airport speaks to the area’s redevelopment potential; so does ailing Highland Mall, the largely-vacant retail destination center that Austin Community College has a large stake in. Then there’s the new Midtown Commons development at North Lamar, located on the Capital Metro Red Line.

Ben Philpott, KUT News

Perry’s Security Costs Soar

The Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) has been releasing travel-related security costs incurred by Gov. Rick Perry during his campaign for the GOP presidential nomination. However, the totals haven’t included overtime pay. The Texas Tribune requested the overtime amounts:

“In the six months in which Perry was an active presidential candidate, DPS spent $1.1 million on overtime pay for the Executive Protection Bureau – more than the total overtime pay for the security detail in all of 2010, records show. ”

In December, during Perry’s tour of Iowa, DPS spending costs came close to $300,000.

Let's take a midweek look at the top Austin and Central Texas stories from KUT.org and StateImpact Texas, KUT's reporting partnership with NPR.

LCRA About to Finalize Water Plan Through 2020

A vote is imminent on a plan that would regulate water use from the Highland Lakes to the Gulf Coast until 2020. The Lower Colorado River Authority heard public comment Tuesday from a wide range of people on its water management plan.

“It’s really hard for me to be speaking here today, because we are staring down the devastation of the drought of 2011,” said Janet Caylor, representing businesses on Lake Travis. “And as y’all are aware, there have already been multiple bankruptcies, loss of jobs, many are struggling to stay in business.”

Photo by Wyatt McSpadden, courtesy University of Texas

Could rush hour gridlock turn into relaxation time for Texas drivers?

University of Texas researcher Peter Stone and his fellow project members at UT’s Autonomous Intersection Management (AIM) project have been receiving attention with a provocative concept: creating “smart” intersections linked to intelligent autos that will enable cars to drive themselves. Stone’s research was recently presented at a meeting of the American Association for Advancement of Science.

Stone is no stranger to automotive technology; five years ago, he was part of a team that responded to a development challenge from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to create a vehicle that could pilot itself. “Since then, in 2007, we’ve had a car which can drive itself,” Stone says.

Photo by KUT News

It's Wednesday, which can only mean one thing: A mid-week round-up of news in Austin and Central Texas from KUT.org, our reporting partner StateImpact Texas, and our friends at KUHF Houston:

New Austin City Website Still Ironing Out Kinks (KUT News)

Graphic by KUT News

More taxicabs may be hitting Austin's streets, but not anytime soon.

Last night, the City Council approved additional permits for cab companies: 30 for Lone Star Cab (which would bring its total to 88), and 15 for Austin Cab (bringing it to 177).

However, the approvals were on first reading only; council must approve the change on three readings, which may occur concurrently. And even then, it takes 60 days for the permits to take effect.

As shown above, should Lone Star and Austin Cab receive the additional permits, their numbers will still be  eclipsed by Yellow Cab, which controls 455 permits: so many, in fact, it's technically prohibited by city  ordinance, which states a company may not possess more than 60 percent of the city's permits. 

Photo by Caleb Bryant Miller for KUT News

As Austin has grown in size and prominence, so have cries for a more robust transportation system.  Our mayor has repeatedly called for a vote on an urban rail system to serve the city's core, and the city has received tantalizing glimpses of what rail cars could like in Austin.

What Austin hasn’t had in earnest is a close examination of how other cities have implemented rail systems.

That may change somewhat this week, with a delegation of a transit authority leaders from six western cities – Dallas, Denver, Phoenix, Portland, Salt Lake City and San Diego – assembling in Austin for discussions at two events.

Jeff Heimsath/KUT News

Plans to expand Capital Metro’s rail service haven’t enjoyed a smooth roll-out.

The transit authority told KXAN yesterday its plans on launching weekend service on its MetroRail commuter line during this spring’s South by Southwest festival.

However, a report from Austin American-Statesman‘s Ben Wear notes there’s still no agreement between Cap Metro and the City of Austin, which is expected to fund the extra rail service. He quotes Austin City Council member and Cap Metro board chair Mike Martinez as saying, “The bottom line is, there’s no deal.”

The soonest any formal action could occur on the proposal is next week. At their Feb. 9 meeting, city council is slated to take up an item providing for the extra funding. The cost of expanding Friday rail service into the evening and running the service on Saturday is tallied at $2.2 million annually, with two optional year-long contract extensions.

Photo by KUT News

School Board to Withdraw Financial Exigency

The Austin ISD board is expected to withdraw the district's declaration of financial exigency at a board meeting tonight. AISD declared itself to be in a state of fiscal emergency last February, which allowed the district to cut more than 1,000 positions. The district says they now have enough money in reserve to cover an anticipated deficit year. 

flickr.com/bionicteaching

Here’s another reason not to over-imbibe: If you get sick in a taxi on the way back from Sixth Street, you could get hit with a $100 dollar fine.

That measure is one of two proposals coming to the Austin City Council tomorrow. Item 42 creates the clean-up fee. If passed, it directs City Manager Marc Ott to draft “recommendations for implementation and enforcement strategies for a $100 taxicab clean-up fee” – i.e., how and when the fee will be collected. It will also implement the new rule quickly, by Feb. 9.

There’s a second cab-related measure up too: Item 43, which would implement a “peak hour surcharge” on fares. Between the hours of 9p.m. and 4:30p.m., fares would be charged a flat $2.50 surcharge.

The new fees are an outgrowth of complaints council regularly hears every time a taxi-related measure comes up: that it's difficulty to make a living as a cab driver.

Photo by Wells Dunbar, KUT News

New signs are in place at Capital Metro bus stops around town. But instead of a list of times, they feature an identification number for that specific stop, and information on how to learn more about the next bus arrival. The signs include a quick response (QR) code , which people can scan with their smartphones to open a mobile website containing upcoming arrival times for that individual spot.

It’s a technological step forward for Capital Metro, which is in the process of installing site-specific signs at each of its 2,700 bus stops around Austin.

However, the times Capital Metro displays are the set, static times the transportation agency displays in their schedule books. Real-time information on bus arrivals and departures are still some two years away, the agency says.

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