Monday, December 01, 2008

"The mobility authority has confined itself to a 'unimodal' system consisting exclusively of toll roads."

Central Texans must take the long view of local transit


Sarah Eckhardt, Travis County Commissioner
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2008

'What the heck is a 'multimodal transportation system'?" It's a system that includes a coordinated mix of roads, rail, bus, bike and pedestrian infrastructure moving people and goods through and within a region. We need one of them multimodal jobbies for many reasons.

First, everybody from former national security advisers to hockey moms from Alaska have been scaring the daylights out of us with the fact that we are dependent on oil produced by people who don't like us very much. Now combine that with the inconvenient truth about our copious energy consumption threatening our planetary ecosystem.

If scary geopolitical and environmental facts don't do it for you, let's try state demographics. People in Texas are condensing around urban metropolitan areas. The Texas State Demographer has a lovely set of maps illustrating the undeniable march of Texans out of the rural east and west and into a corridor stretching from north of Dallas to Laredo. We in Central Texas are at the 50-yard line of that corridor.

If state demographics aren't your bag, let's try your wallet. We can't afford the roads necessary to support our habit of suburban single-occupant car commuting. The major highways in our 30-year transportation plan are so expensive that we plan to toll them to the max and take out 40-year loans backed by those expected tolls to pay for construction. Construction will cost us, our children and our children's children billions of dollars. According to the 2007 estimates, just seven miles of U.S. 290 East will cost at least $623 million. Seven miles of U.S. 183 South will cost at least $490 million. One two-mile interchange at "the Y" in Oak Hill will cost at least $500 million.

In contrast, 32 miles of Capital Metro's Red Line from Leander to Austin is expected to cost less than $200 million for the initial build and the proposed Phase 2 expansion. Twenty-eight miles of Capital Metro's proposed Green Line, stretching from Austin through Manor to Elgin, is expected to cost less than $200 million. The City of Austin is proposing an urban rail network to connect downtown to the University of Texas, the Mueller redevelopment, the Long Center, the Seaholm redevelopment and the airport for less than it will cost to do the proposed toll projects along U.S. 183 South and Texas 71 East. Rapid bus, high occupant vehicle incentives, grade-separated bike lanes, sidewalks and crosswalks are even cheaper. Roads will play a vital role in the multimodal system we need, but we must integrate these other modes into our system of roads now, not later.

The major metropolitan areas of Texas are begging for this kind of regional multimodal system. The Legislature responded by creating entities like the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority to develop multimodal systems including toll roads, rail, rapid bus and HOV lanes. But the mobility authority has confined itself to a "unimodal" system consisting exclusively of toll roads. The CTRMA system, which began with the tolled lanes of U.S. 183A, is pursuing inclusion of tolled lanes on U.S. 290 East and intends to include tolled lanes on U.S. 183 South, Texas 71 East, U.S. 290 West/Texas 71 West and Texas 45. The CTRMA system will cost billions of dollars, include nothing but rubber tire infrastructure and support sprawl development as far as your tank will take you.

We must not allow all of our capacity for transportation financing to go to toll roads. A system made up exclusively of toll roads has and will continue to choke out all other modes of transportation. Instead, combine the fortunes of toll roads, rail, rapid bus and HOV incentives. Demand the inclusion of rail, rapid bus, HOV incentives and other methods of reducing vehicle miles traveled in every major road project. Do it for your wallet, your state, your nation and your planet.

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