This piece was originally submitted to The Daily Texan as an op-ed, but wasn’t published.
Soon, Austin voters will decide on the $720 million so-called “Mobility Bond” that promises much-needed relief for our city’s traffic woes. Though overshadowed by this year’s unprecedented presidential election, there’s plenty of enthusiasm to go around for this important local issue, too. “Vote Prop One” signs line my daily walk to campus. The Daily Texan endorsed the bond a few days ago.
Everyone agrees that something must be done about Austin’s transportation crisis. But for years, our city has lacked the political will to deploy truly efficient and cost-effective solutions. First came the Red Line commuter rail “starter line” between downtown and Leander. After several years of operation, it’s a drain on Capital Metro’s resources that carries very few riders. It’s no secret why: the line does not serve UT or much of downtown. Service is very limited, with trains running half-hourly at rush hour and hourly off-peak, and no evening or Sunday service.
Then came the failed urban rail bond in 2014. The proposed light rail line followed what many saw as a meandering and politically motivated route from East Riverside to Highland. It was also spectacularly expensive, thanks to a proposed tunnel under the existing Red Line and a bridge across Lady Bird Lake. The narrowly defeated 2000 light rail proposal would have carried nearly double the riders for nearly half the cost. Transit proponents like me balked. So did the voters.
This year’s “Mobility Bond” is yet another disappointing proposal with no real solutions for Austin’s traffic crisis. Though some sidewalk, bicycle, and transit infrastructure improvements are included, the bulk of the money is going toward bigger, faster roads. Just listen to Mayor Adler: “When you look at the corridor studies, they are first about improving car and auto throughput. It’s not about building bicycle lanes, sidewalks.”
The fact is, we can’t widen our way out of our traffic problems. The principle of “induced demand” is well known among urban and transportation planners: any new road capacity is quickly eaten up by additional automobile commuters. In my native Southern California, a new billion-dollar carpool lane for the notorious 405 Freeway resulted in even slower commute times. The same happened in Houston, where the Katy Freeway underwent a titanic expansion from eight to twenty-three lanes.
Real traffic solutions provide a convenient alternative to sitting in congestion in our cars. The true cost of Proposition 1 may not be its sticker price – although at $720 million, it is quite expensive, and not nearly enough to cover the eventual cost of the “smart corridor” projects – but what our city could do with those resources instead. A truly useful, high-capacity transit system for Austin is long overdue. The Central Austin Community Development Corporation has proposed an excellent light rail starter line that could be constructed with local funds and carry over 30,000 riders on day one. But once again, it seems our leaders lack vision. Proposition 1 is business as usual, and a step in the wrong direction.