Transportation

Traffic, public transit, congestion, road construction and closures, I-35, MoPac, US 290, US 183, Ben White Blvd, and policy and planning issues related to transportation and mobility in Austin and the Central Texas counties of Travis, Hays, Caldwell, Bastrop and Williamson.

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.

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.

Image courtesy flickr.com/shareski

Ah, the plethora of year-end lists, the Top-Ten this and that for 2011. Top stories, top trends, top celebrities, you know the lot.

Photo by Nathan Bernier, KUT News

The price of gasoline continues its downward slide ahead of the holiday travel season. More than 7.5 million Texans prepare to travel 50 miles or more for the holidays, according to a AAA survey.

A gallon of regular unleaded is selling for an average of $3.04 in the Austin-San Marcos metropolitan area, AAA’s Fuel Gauge Report says. That’s a decrease of five cents over the last week. It’s 12 cents less than the price a month ago.

But gas prices are still higher than they were this time last year, when a gallon of regular unleaded sold for an average of $2.81 in the Austin area.

The lowest gas in the city as of this posting is selling for $2.88 at three locations off Research Boulevard in North Austin, according what people have reported to AustinGasPrices.com.

Photo by KentonForshee http://www.flickr.com/photos/kentonforshee/

As Austin considers an electric urban rail system to shuttle people around the central part of the city, Nashville, TN - a city of comparable size - is abandoning its electric street car plan in favor of bus rapid transit.

The reason is mainly price. A study by New York engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff found bus rapid transit would cost $136 million, compared to $275 million for streetcars, Nashville Scene reports.

"Bus rapid transit is by far the most compelling case we've heard," Nashville Mayor Karl Dean told the newspaper.

Here in Austin, the city is considering a series of bonds to pay for an urban rail system that could total $1.3 billion dollars.  Capital Metro is also working on a bus rapid transit plan, currently scheduled to launch in 2014.

CapMetro promises limited stops, boarding from all doors, bus stops with real-time bus arrival information, and buses that have some control over traffic lights.

Photo by I-Hwa Cheng for KUT News

It’s the busiest week of the year at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, and the holiday rush comes on top of a large increase in annual traffic at the airport.

Traffic over the entire year is up by about six percent. That’s 25,000 passengers a day, on average. Of course, it’s even busier during the holidays. Spokesman Jim Halbrook says it’s taking some passengers up to an hour to get through security. 

Photo by Callie Hernandez for KUT News

The Texas Department of Transportation is slashing tolls for trucks on two highways around Austin in hopes that long-haul drivers will skip Interstate 35. From December 21 to January 4, all trucks on the SH 130/SH 45 E tollway will be charged the rate for a normal passenger vehicle.

In some cases, that’s more than two-thirds cheaper, saving some truckers almost $20.

“I hope these temporary rates will encourage large trucks and other through traffic to take SH 130 and SH 45 SE to bypass Austin-area traffic, resulting in greater travel time savings and less congestion on I-35,” TxDOT’s executive director Phil Wilson said in a news release. 

Photo by CRT UT Austin http://www.flickr.com/photos/ctr_utaustin/

In about a dozen days, you’ll be able to drive from I-35 to Ben White Boulevard and vice versa in any direction without having to get onto the frontage road. An 18-month project to complete interchanges between the two thoroughfares will be completed December 12.

Currently, three of the four new ramps have been completed. The last one will be opened with a ribbon cutting a week from Monday with State Sen. Kirk Watson, State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, and the Texas Department of Transportation’s Austin District engineer Carlos Lopez.

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A short-term improvement for a chronically clogged intersection in southwest Austin is one step closer to becoming reality. Travis County Commissioners voted today to contribute $1.5 million for renovations to the “The Y” in Oak Hill -- the area where highways US 290 and SH 71 converge.

The City of Austin is kicking in $2.6 million for the $4.7 million project that will be carried out by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). 

“I think people should be really excited about this,” Travis County Commissioner Karen Huber said. “It will help.”

Photo by Nathan Bernier, KUT News

For the 56 percent of Texans planning to take a holiday trip this Thanksgiving Day weekend, there's a sliver of good news from your local gas station. Gasoline prices are down six cents over the last week. They’re also down 14 cents over the last month, according to AAA’s Daily Fuel Gauge Report.

Photo by Callie Hernandez/KUT News

City and state transportation officials are holding an open house this afternoon to take public input of the first ideas to improve the I-35 corridor through Central Austin.

Photo by KUT News

Ever wish you could know about a major traffic jam before you get stuck in one? The City of Austin's Transportation Department hopes it can help you do that by installing 13 electronic signs around the city.

By March of next year, drivers passing by these intersections will be informed of real-time traffic jams, construction, weather conditions, special events, as well as detour routes.

"One of the challenges with downtown Austin is that we are at capacity," Transportation Department spokesperson Leah Fillion said.

Daniel Reese

As if awaking from a two year hibernation, a sub-committee of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) held its first meeting this afternoon with a new leader and new members. The Transit Working Group (TWG) was restored in time to prepare for Austin’s soon-to-come vote on an urban rail system.

The working group was first established in 2007 under Austin Mayor Will Wynn. He decided the city needed an urban rail or street car system. But nothing really came out of it. Now, Mayor Lee Leffingwell is leading the TWG.

“The big difference between this group and the one of that before is our focus is going to be regional,” Leffingwell said.

Image courtesy of the Transportation Security Administration.

The first of four new body scanners has arrived at Austin’s airport, courtesy of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Austin-Bergstrom International Airport officials say the scanner is not yet operational. They did not have specifics of when it would be, but a news release said they would be up and running "over the coming days."

Body scanners are controversial. Some state lawmakers have called them a violation of privacy. But the TSA says Austin is getting new so-called Advanced Imaging Technology machines. They do not use X-rays, and they come equipped with new software which officials say is less invasive.

This map shows the areas of Loop 360 that would be affected by any changes.

As many commuters know well, traffic can be miserable in Austin. In 2010 INRIX, a traffic and congestion software research company, ranked the Austin metro area 26th for worst congestion nation-wide. Here is one commuter's video of sitting in traffic on Texas State Highway Loop 360:

Every dot on this map represents a location where at least three collisions have occurred between pedestrians and vehicles since 2008. For the purpose of this map, cyclists are counted as pedestrians. The data was compiled by the Austin Police Department and placed on a map by KUT News.

Austin police have issued more than 200 jaywalking citations as part of a two-week crackdown that runs through Saturday. APD’s Highway Enforcement Command says it launched the campaign because of a high number of pedestrian deaths: 17 so far this year, compared to 7 in 2010.

No, it’s not an area where cell phones wait, like some people might muse.

A cell phone waiting area is a free parking lot at the airport where you wait until your friend or family member calls to say they’re ready to be picked up. That way, you won’t have to circle around burning up gas, waiting for them to claim their luggage.

It’s not exactly a new idea.

USA Today identified cell phone waiting lots as “commonplace” back in 2006. Such lots already exist at airports in Seattle, Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami, Phoenix and Reno, just to name a few locations.

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