In mid-April, Austin City Council unanimously adopted the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan (ASMP), the first comprehensive city-wide transportation plan since 1995. Then, in early May, TxDOT unveiled an $8 billion Interstate 35 expansion, in which the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO), on which several Austin City Council members sit, voted to financially contribute $400 million in funding. In a press briefing following the CAMPO board vote, Mayor Steve Adler said, “With tonight’s vote, CAMPO signals to the Texas Transportation Commission that CAMPO and this region are serious about mobility and that fixing I-35 is our number one priority.”
In April, before being undercut by CAMPO, the ASMP was heralded as a multimodal solution for the future. The comprehensive plan presents a series of recommended policies to help guide the city toward the ambitious objective of a 50/50 mode share by 2039 — 50 percent drive-alone, and 50 percent all other modes of transportation, including bikes, transit, walking, and carpooling. Currently, according to the U.S. Census, 74 percent of the Austin community drives alone to work.
The 50/50 goal lies at the heart of the proposal, which prioritizes a cornucopia of projects including road expansions, sidewalk improvements, trail extensions, new bus transit and rail lines, and more bike lanes. The plan suggests that if the 50/50 mode goal is reached, the city could maintain approximately the same number of cars as it has on the road today, despite a forecasted doubling of the population by 2039.
The plan acknowledges that “in order to attract and retain public transportation riders, it is important that the City of Austin and its public transportation providers create a transportation service that can rival the comfort and convenience of individual automobiles.” However, it also only seeks to decrease public transit time from 39.5 to 35.5 minutes while increasing the number of jobs within a 20-minute commute by car. The plan turns to road expansion and high-capacity carpooling within express lanes as a potential solution to increase mobility. It also seeks to eventually increase bike lane interconnection and improve existing sidewalks in Austin; 80 percent of these were considered by the ASMP to be functionally deficient in 2016.
“It feels like a commuter package,” says Dean Almy, director of the graduate program in urban design at The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture. “I think we have to spin the yarn a different way. I don’t think it is about reducing time. It’s about quality-of-life issues. I think we need a robust, maybe slightly slower, transit system that can move people across the entire grid of the city. I think we need a system that really gets people around the city that is based on the way people want to live and use the city, and it isn’t just about commuting.”
The importance of a transportation plan, given projected population growth, cannot be overstated, and the ASMP is merely a guide — one that lacks the force of land development code and specific funding sources. However, as previously mentioned, a few short weeks after ASMP was adopted, TxDOT unveiled an $8 billion, 30-mile expansion project for the stretch of I-35 that passes through Austin, which would ultimately result in the construction of two levels of underground tunnels. CAMPO approved a $400 million contribution toward the project. Arguably, this signals that the City Council is most interested in the policy recommendations of the ASMP pertaining to the roadway system.
Historically, the question of urban transit within Austin has come down to a question of economics — the bang-for-your-buck factor. In 2000, the first city bond election proposing a light rail system was held. “I think one of the reasons that lost,” Almy says, “was because there was a campaign around it costing too much and doing too little.” Then, in 2016, the subject was brought forward again, but this time with a federal aid package attached. “And that also failed, but not by a lot,” says Almy. “I think that there was some sense of suspicion that the location of the rail route was driven by real estate development factors. Once again, it was a kind of economic strategy on the part of the City Council.”
Considering that Austin has historically approached the issue of mobility, and specifically urban transit, as a question of economics, it seems appropriate to break down the numbers now available in 2019.
In 2014, citizens voted down a proposal to build 9.5 miles of light rail at an estimated capital cost of $1.38 billion, which translates to roughly $145 million per mile. In today’s dollars, and adjusted for inflation, that works out to around $156 million per mile of light rail, or $1.49 billion in total capital cost. TxDOT’s $8 billion 30-mile expansion project for I-35 roughly works out to $266 million per mile. Economically speaking, the region and City of Austin could get 30 miles of light rail for almost half the cost of the I-35 extension at $4.7 billion.
The take-away from the numbers suggests the ASMP plan does not go far enough and is easily overshadowed by bigger congestion projects like the I-35 expansion. The 50/50 goal laid out in ASMP is admirable. However, for half the cost, the region and the City of Austin could go further, and it could begin to frame the question of mobility as a matter of a citizen’s quality of life rather than time spent on the road, alone in a car.
Erin Augustine is web editor of Texas Architect.