Snappatx posted the walkable communities scale for Austin from walkable.com which looks at walker’s scores as an indicator for walkability amongst a neighborhood.

Not surprisingly Downtown, the UT Campus and West University  were the high scorers . The algorithm focuses solely on the distance to the nearest amenity. My neighborhood in North Austin scored a 31 and it’s no wonder since the nearest grocery store is 1.13 miles away and likely doesn’t contain the necessary food.

I found it interesting that Austin ranked 29th, 3 spots behind Houston which I would have assumed to be the least walkable except their lack of zoning make it more of a possibility I assume.

The idea of car independence is a growing desire among many who are tired of the dependence on oil and gas, the high price of vehicles, and desire to use alternate modes of transportation. The reality in Austin is that most people are car-dependent despite barely scoring in the “somewhat walkable” category on walkable.com.

Should this be the City of Austin’s goal?

Priding themselves on environmentalism, Austinites would surely welcome the City leading them towards car-independence, but it doesn’t even seem to be a goal.

According to Walkable.com, their highest rankings cities contain high density, mixed use, transit, short blocks and a number of items on their checklist. Austin lacks high density, provides little mixed use options, transit isn’t reliable or convenient, and blocks are far from short.

We need the City of Austin to get serious about transportation options that can reshape the way Austinites live, that can reshape communities toward a future with car independence with more transit options that actually connect destinations.

Looking at the Metrorail stations, downtown is the only destination that people readily see when they plan a trip. They don’t immediately think about connector bus routes because the assumption of most people is that a train stop will be a destination worth visiting on its own. MLK is a ½ mile walk for most of the nearby residents and you can’t see any shops or restaraunts from the stop itself. Same goes for every stop along the train. Highland station puts you close to a mall, but the mall is dying. Lakeline could have been a destination if even got near the mall.

Eventually Leander will develop into a destination around its stop as I’m sure many of the others will.  But why design it in areas needing development as opposed to designing to reach the developed areas? The City of Austin has postponed their rail referendum in order to “get it right”. Getting it right would be connected populated and developed areas together through efficient transit. Let’s hope they adopt the goal of car-independence in the process because many Austinites are waiting.

The latest Brookings report has Austin all over it. Austin remains one of the fastest growing cities in the country coming it at 4th over the last decade with a population growth of 34.7%. The previous decade saw Austin come in at #2 with a growth of 48.6%. 2 decades in a row has seen Austin grow whether they constructed new roads or not. Most of this growth occurred in the suburbs.

Commuting Facts

Only 19 Metro areas have more than 25% of commuters travel to work by a mode other than driving alone and Austin comes in 12th. The Brookings report also showed that commuting alone in Austin decreased by 3.6% over the last decade and that trend is likely to continue.

The majority of non-driving alone commuters carpool, followed by working from home.

An interesting fact overall that reveals a new American trend is that for the first time in over 40 years, commuting by transit increased overall, while driving alone decreased. Commuting by car is becoming less popular and more people are anxious for car-independence. This isn’t just a New York City trend either, but any city providing adequate transit commuting saw the same results.

This clearly shows that when people are given adequate transit modes within walking distance of their homes and office they will use it over cars. Transit planners should take notice.

The Travis County Commissioner’s Court voted to withdraw their support for SH 45 SW yesterday. It was the subject of heated debate at the Monday CAMPO meeting and it’s a disappointing blow to a much needed road for Southwest Austin. It leaves that area without an efficient connection to Mopac/Lp 1 and continues to postpone a dire transportation need.

The biggest cost in transportation is timing. Delaying planning, design, or construction only increases the price. Travis County’s decision will likely result in SH 45 SW not being included in the CAMPO 2035 plan which is required for federal funding and without federal funding, SH 45 SW faces some obstacles.

Why did they do it?

Travis County Commissioner Karen Huber is facing the most outrage at this decision since citizens claim she voiced support in order to get herself elected. She likely pushed for this from her “environmental conservationist” side rather than he “history of bringing people together to get things done” side. This decision drew support from the highly active anti-road groups Save Barton Creek Association and Save Our Springs Alliance.

It’s most likely a political move and one Huber can afford to make right now since she’s not up for reelection until November 2012.  Here’s a quote from her:

Huber argued that there has not been a definitive study showing that the construction of the highway would relieve the congestion on Brodie Lane, and that spending $80 to $100 million at this time would not be responsible and that CAMPO’s plan does not account for population growth.

The idea that “the CAMPO plan does not account for population growth” might be the dumbest statement a politician has made and may show how uninformed she is in regards to the transportation planning process. Huber’s comment on it “not being definitive” to reduce congestion is continued ignorance that doesn’t even consider the new roads in her own city (see 183A).

It’s more flawed thought from environmentalists who apparently think continued congestions improves air quality in the area. It saves your springs now, but impacts your air quality tremendously.

Does this end the project?

No. This actually has little to no bearing over the construction of the project. It doesn’t help it politically, but Travis County has no power over the project. It’s a TxDOT/CTRMA endeavor that CAMPO can include in their plan whether the commissioners voted every meeting to withdraw support.

If you still want the project, voice your support here (http://www.surveymonkey.com/s.aspx?sm=q8N6FYwD2HABs4Q61iiAevfRItp7t1qccqKks58rKGY%3d&) .

Also, if it’s removed from the CAMPO 2035 plan, it can always be amended through their process. This project is far from dead.

With Capital Metro naming their two finalists for head of the agency, they were making a clear statement. It’s time to break with the past. Despite Doug Allen enduring the Sunset Review with class and providing adequate leadership during the launch of the first commuter rail in Austin, it’s time for a new face not associated at all with the agencies prior failures.

So now we have 2 candidates. Let’s look at our options.

Deborah Wathen Finn is the CEO of Wathen Group based in New York City. Her background is quite impressive. Her company serves the transit & rail industry, she formerly was the global director for transit and rail at CH2M Hill where she expanded the practice in the US and overseas, was a VP for HNTB, and worked for the New Jersey DOT & NJ Transit. Quite a resume for a finalist.

Linda S. Watson has been the CEO of the Central Florida Regional Transportation Authority in Orlando, Florida known as the Lynx (enjoy the bright colors on their website). A google news search produced these results if you’re interested. Highlight includes the agency transitioning their whole fleet from diesel to clean energy, which sounds like something Austin would also value. They are also familiar with budget issues, as they recently made a deal with Disney to provide more service in return for a Disney 5-year investment. Their ridership only takes buses and is     about 1/3 of that of Austin.

Prior to the Lynx, she ran the transit agency in Corpus Christi. Obviously her experience dealing with the funding issues that face transit agencies is extremely helpful considering Capital Metro’s current state.

Capital Metro now has to decide how much they want to break with the past. Do they choose the current CEO of transit agency to assume the same position or go to the private sector for a consultant? My personal opinion is that the agency and Austin could benefit from a new perspective from a consultant-experienced CEO with experience in pursuing growth and efficiency.

Count my vote for Deborah Wathen Finn.

Pennsylvania has recently made news for the US DOT rejecting their proposal to use I-80 tolls for other projects in the state. It was an attempt to use a heavily used free way as a cash cow that would make up for the state’s transportation budget shortfall. The US DOT cited regulations made back in the 80s that regulates the use of tolls on existing freeways. If an existing road is tolled, it then must be used to maintain or improve the road which tolls are collected on, not as a means for building other projects.

Now Pennsylvania and Virginia have come out with proposals to run by the US DOT to toll their interstates at the state border. Virginia’s Governor Bob McDonnell cited the 2003 US DOT approval to toll I-81, but now they’d prefer to toll I-95 instead.

The tolls at the state border could produce huge revenue for states strapped for cash to pay for transportation projects and to maintain existing interstates which can be highly costly.

Could it happen to I-35?

Currently, state legislation prevents tolling existing freeways, but you can bet that the next legislation session will be forced to look at alternative means of funding for roads since the state’s gas tax is not cutting it. The Gas Tax is being used to fund other state agencies and besides, the gas tax was intended to be used to CONSTRUCT roads, not to MAINTAIN those roads. Since it has been used for both it has been overextended beyond its capacities.

If the legislature looks to make tolling a viable option, I-35 remains the best option. It could also be argued that it is needed to make the necessary improvements, like getting rid of the upper and lower deck.

The question is then, would you use it? It might be the best way to improve congestion while raising money to improve the roadway.

The anti-toll parties would surely come out of the woodwork with anger, but something has to be done to provide funding statewide. The US DOT already has a program to allow for 3 Interstates to be tolled, but will they approve an application for I-35? No one knows.

Will the state legislature fear impacts to trade going along I-35? The obstacles are many.

For those hoping it never happens, current conditions are in your favor. For those wanting improved air quality and better transportation, is there a better solution?

The Future of Transportation

- Grist deals with the important transportation question of the future: Does sustainable transportation mean fewer cars or better cars? – A really helpful evaluation of each side of the argument. It’s a growing tension that pits our current dependence on cars against new policies that aim for car independence.

Local

- TxDOT’s top rail official resigned to slow progress. You know, because politicians and DOTs always get things done by aiming for a marathon. Not good news for people desiring High Speed Rail in Texas.

- In other TxDOT news, the agency that has no money for new construction, still is able to launch large state-wide safety ad campaigns.

- The Dallas Transportation Blog looks at how Capital Metro’s failures and Houston’s Metro’s issues will affect legislation during the 2011 session.

- Austin City Manager Marc Ott sat down with the Statesman last Friday for an interview. He was shocked that there was no transportation department and the City’s plan hadn’t been updated in decades. That explains the lack of movement on Urban Rail in the city over the last decade.

- Round Rock Rail faces some challenges, but it appears CTRMA is the most committed supporter of the project after providing the majority of the funding for the feasibility study.

- May is Bike Month and May 21st is Bike-To-Work day and the city will be providing free breakfast at stations around the city. I’m hoping to borrow a bike and use it to get to the Metrorail.

Around the Country

- In Florida they are aiming for High Speed Rail that is actually high speed. At 200 mph, it nearly doubles Obama’s desire for 110 mph “high-speed” rail. It’s success would set new nationwide goals and standards. Meanwhile, China giggles at both as they set their goal at 300 mph.

- Bike parking by permit only illustrates that more people are using bikes as a means for transportation in urban settings around the country. This is a good problem to have according to WashCycle.

Yesterday, Doug Allen spoke about the “successful” Saturday downtown trips, but then explained that financially, it wouldn’t be feasible to repeat the Saturday service very often. Citing a $274-per-hour fee for Herzog, their Rail specialist as a big deterrent saying it wouldn’t be financially feasible or profitable.

The only logical reason is that freight rail pays to travel the rail instead of Capital Metro paying to run their own rail (which is funny when you think about it).

So where is their flawed logic you ask?

If it’s not financially feasible to run operations on Saturday when most trains ran at full capacity and had 4,212 boardings (counts likely did not include lap children whom parents carried on board), how is financially feasible and wise to run it every weekday when boardings are lucky to reach 1,000?

Based on numbers given in this article:

Each day the train runs from 5:25-9:25AM & from 3:10-7:42 at night. If we add an hour to the beginning and end of each service schedule, each train is in service for 10.5 hours a day. With 3 trains running, that’s 31.5 hours per day at $274-per-hour, you’re looking at $8,631/day for operating costs.

If there are 1,000 boardings per day, the most money they could be getting everyday from riders is $6,000 and that’s if everyone who takes it rides either from Howard, Lakeline, or Leander which from experience isn’t reality. Not to mention that they offer free rides to a whole host of individuals. So on good weekdays, Capital Metro is losing at least $2,500 a day in operating costs.

Saturday’s rides saw full trains starting at Lakeline heading south, turning people away and plenty of demand for ridership. With 4 times the number estimated for boardings at 4,212 the potential fees could have topped $12,000 with an estimated operating cost from Ben Wear at $10,000. Again, with free riders, there’s no way to really know, especially because of the odd no turnstile to verify tickets purchased. But the potential to break even or post a $2,000 profit is actually present on a Saturday ride.

So if we follow the logic that freight rail needs to run, why not push them to run on the weekdays and let Capital Metro run on weekends? For that matter, what about the waste of money that is the connector bus routes? Now, as a commuter who rides daily, I wouldn’t really like this so it’s good that Doug Allen doesn’t read the blog, but logically and financially speaking it makes sense.

A problem that may exist and be difficult to overcome is the mentality of Capital Metro as a social service rather than a self-sustaining business. They are an agency of the state funded from tax dollars and need to provide services to its constituents, but if you’re going to build a paid service, wouldn’t you like it to be self-sustaining?

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