The intentional auto congestion of Silicon Hills

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Urban schizophrenia is running rampant in the United States. Urban politicians seem oblivious or even hostile to rural neighbors who supply their food and energy while punishing their own residents for the sins of their alleged grandfathers. Often the short-sightedness in one city causes negative impacts far beyond the city’s boundaries.

Austin, Texas, is one of the fastest growing cities in the United States. As Austin is home to the Texas State Capitol, all of Texas has an interest in getting into and out of the city. Moreover, the only true north-south highway (Interstate 35, or IH35, as Austinites call it) is a bottleneck on the 1,500-mile corridor from Mexico to the Canadian border. IH35 is one of America’s primary trade routes, and Austin’s phobias are impacting a wide swath of America’s people.

Ever since college dropout Michael Dell began selling computers out of his dorm room, the one-time college town and “live music capital” has morphed into a semiconductor metropolis that is often referred to as “Silicon Hills.” As the city has grown, housing costs have skyrocketed, forcing many to commute from burgeoning suburbs.

Commuters want to minimize their drive time, and most cities have accommodated them with highway improvements. But Austin stubbornly has for decades been at war with highways even as its leaders subsidize urban growth. There are no east-west controlled access highways into the city, and just two run north-south.

Austin has but one Interstate highway. Thanks, we are often reminded, to the city’s racist history, IH35 runs right through the center of town, once (but no longer) dividing whites from an ever-decreasing share of Blacks and an ever-increasing share of “Latin-Xers.” [Upgrades to State Highway [SH] 1, or MOPAC, the only other local north-south route without traffic lights, have also been fought for decades.]

The Austin section of IH35 carries nearly 200,000 vehicle trips per day, of which 85 percent are local. Yet the downtown section narrows to just three lanes in each direction, and exit lanes are notoriously short and often backed up. All too often, traffic accidents stop traffic entirely, and the lack of alternative routes results in miles-long backups that increase angst and air pollution.

Austin “progressives” have vehemently opposed “bourgeois” highways and have sought for decades to build a light rail system (now under construction) that will further constrict auto traffic on narrow city streets. The war against private wheels is intense as the city’s skyline grows and states law against obstructing views of the Capitol are ignored.

The fast-growing city, whose leaders once begged to be listed as noncompliant with federal ozone regulations, is also known for city streets without synchronization of traffic lights. Unsynchronized lights both discourage driving and increase pollution (and likely accidents).

City elites have vehemently opposed toll roads (paid for by users), including SH 130, which will become the primary north-south alternative once the state begins constructing downtown IH35 upgrades. Equally hated is SH 45, which together with a segment of SH 130 may one day constitute the city’s only circumferential beltway.

Austin also uses ecology to obstruct highway construction. The Edwards Aquifer, which provides fresh water to many in the Texas Hill Country, serves as a raison d’etre to deny highway rights-of-way. Yet Austin never considers that increased drive times in areas adjacent to the huge Greenbelt more than offset any ecological damage from such roads.

One might ask why a city bent on growth opposes a key element for growth. The answer is explained by the city’s political culture. Until very recently, Austin was governed by a small group of elites from virtually the same ZIP Code who were seemingly on a mission to keep Austin as unfriendly to highway traffic as possible.

In southwest Austin, after a 30-year battle, the state is finally building the Oak Hill Parkway to alleviate traffic congestion where SH 71 splits with U.S. 290. Back in 1995, that intersection was at capacity. Today, after three decades of infighting over routes, traffic is twice capacity.

Despite the obvious need, the Austin Chronicle has called the highway improvements as “taxpayer abuse.” Yet the more likely “taxpayer abuse” was the 30-year delay that increased the cost of the needed highway improvements exponentially.

Another major fight is brewing over a vote by Hays County (just south of Austin) to authorize construction of the “missing link” of the toll road SH 45 across undeveloped land. Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea claims that completion of the loop would result in “an enormous amount of truck traffic” re-routed from IH35. She may be right, given the sure slowdowns during the long-delayed IH35 upgrades, delays for which Shea and her ilk are largely responsible..

And that, friends, brings us back to the Big Enchilada – IH35 in downtown Austin, where the two elevated and two ground-level southbound lanes are reduced to three (plus two- and three-lane frontage roads) through the most congested part of town.

Progressives, who continue to claim the highway itself is racist, want the entire roadway (which is hardly wide enough) to be submerged and a city park of sorts built at ground level to “reconnect” the city’s east and west sides (already well served by city streets). But what they REALLY want is for the entire highway to just go away.

Slate magazine describes the state’s plan as “the 20-lane highway Texas wants to force through Austin.” The plan would erase about 150 existing properties (including the current home of the highway-allergic Austin Chronicle). The scary plan includes four HOV lanes plus the required frontage roads.

Slate describes the resulting “latticework of ramps, bypass lanes, and flyovers” as having “the look of one of those historical timelines that shows warring empires dividing and combining in endless permutations.”

Belatedly, with fear and trepidation, city officials began begging the state to narrow the right-of-way, build more crossings, turn frontage roads into pleasant local streets, build parks atop highway lanes to “knit together neighborhoods” severed in 1962 (which no longer exist), and above all delay the entire project until Austin completes its $7 billion rail transit project.

But waiting will harm commuters and long-distance trade routes as well. Without these upgrades, the Texas A&M Transportation Institute predicts that, by 2035, the 19-mile commute from Round Rock to Austin along the state’s most congested highway will take 2.5 hours. But Austin will likely fight to delay construction as long as the courts will allow.

One can readily envision that this fight will go on for years.

Whatever the result, the genesis of this forthcoming traffic disaster goes way back to the decision long ago to only provide a narrow corridor for the only highway from Mexico to Dallas and points north (Minneapolis is on IH35). Myopic city officials never foresaw the need for a wider right-of-way back then, nor have their successors in office ever seriously dealt with real-world solutions to the growing congestion (and resultant air pollution).

Schizophrenia combined with myopia has created this mess. And there is no easy fix.

  • Duggan Flanakin is the Director of Policy Research at the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow. A former Senior Fellow with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Mr. Flanakin authored definitive works on the creation of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and on environmental education in Texas. A brief history of his multifaceted career appears in his book, "Infinite Galaxies: Poems from the Dugout."

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* This article was originally published here


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