Once a Frontier, Elgin Again a Frontier

19 08 2010

Back in 1869, Elgin was founded as a railroad outpost and, today, it has once again become a frontier, one of semirural character. Between 1996 and 2006, Travis County’s population increased from 717,000 to 921,000 people and Bastrop County grew from 49,000 residents to 72,000, a number that Texas’ Office of the State Demographer expects to increase to 358,000 by 2040. During that period Elgin’s population nearly doubled. Furthermore, the Colorado River Corridor has been identified as the most desirable place – for all intents and purposes the very last place – to accommodate Central Texas’ future residents.

This is where Elgin is located, and its population may very well double again sooner than ten years. Drastic changes will begin occurring and, “in many ways, those changes are already underway,” said Elgin’s Mayor, Marc Holm. “More growth coming to Elgin is a foregone conclusion, and we are at a crossroads. We are becoming a small city whether we like it or not.”

We Here at The Placemaking Institute believe that this provides a wonderfully ample and fascinating opportunity to explore what can only be termed that whacky socio-economic experiment better known as Growth. And (maybe despite public opinion to the contrary), Our Most Senior Fellow can adhere to editorial oversight and direction and, so to speak, tow the line. Because this is exactly what he’s doing now while writing for The Elgin Courier, within which the following was recently published (albeit in an editorialized manner):

A Dangerous Walk to School is No Laughing Matter

Yes we chuckle when hearing grumpy yet loveable forebears dismiss today’s kids by arguing, “They’ve got it tough?! We walked uphill to school…Both ways!” But way back then they didn’t experience such increasingly dangerous auto-choked roads. And, upon further reflection, just a simple walk to school has become a very serious matter indeed these days – Especially here in Elgin.

““I do everything I can to keep my kids from walking to school in those ditches. Those roads are a deathtrap,” impassioned Silvia Garcia. “The weeds are over their heads, there’s rattlesnakes and cars speeding by that miss them by inches.”

“But it’s not just about getting to the schools. I live in Shenandoah, and you’re taking your life in your hands if you walk anywhere so you have to drive,” Tasha Holcombe threw up her hands. “I can’t even count the number of near accidents I’ve seen; I can’t believe nobody’s been killed yet! Is there anything being done about it?”

On May 27, 2010 the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) announced the City of Elgin would benefit from a federally-funded Safe Routes to School Grant to make FM1100 and County Line Road safer, more “walkable,” by constructing sidewalks and a pedestrian bridge and installing crosswalks. The City was awarded $343,500 for the County Line portion while TxDOT was awarded $499,200 for upgrading FM1100. Why this loss of local control?

“Because TxDOT owns (FM1100) and, yes, this adds an extra bureaucratic hoop Elgin must jump through,” Councilman Chris Cannon (Ward 3) said. “It’s frustrating. We wish we could get it done tomorrow. But we simply don’t have the money to do it ourselves right now.”

“We’re still excited about this, and now it’s in TxDOT’s hands to do the design (and engineering work),” added Councilman Keith Joesel (Mayor Pro-Tem [Ward 4]). “If they can keep up with which department’s doing what, then this is going to end up being a good thing. Somebody (from TxDOT) always needs to be available and responsive to us” when it comes to local issues.

What are some of those issues?

“We’ve been looking at straightening that t-intersection for four and a half years,” Gary Cooke, Director of Planning and Development, replied. “And (TxDOT) didn’t know anything about it.”

Wait –

“So we got them down here, and now they’re studying it. Another example is if they’re planning on putting sidewalk on two sides of road where one section of that road, if we ever get funding, will totally disappear, then they’re just throwing money away. There are also watershed issues. Everybody needs to be on the same page.”

Do you think this will occur?

“TxDOT has worked well with us and included us throughout this whole application and planning process,” stated EISD Superintendant Bill Graves. “We expect, and we hope, that that continues to be the case.”

When will construction begin?

“We’re looking at next summer before we’re building any sidewalks,” Mr. Joesel answered. “Both local government (and Elginites) need to continually make our presence known so that does indeed continue to be the case. There is always a need for greater coordination and better communication.”

Upon being informed when construction will, hopefully, begin?

“I hope nobody gets killed between now and then,” breathed Ms. Holcombe. “That’s all I can say.”

“It needs to be done yesterday,” Mrs. Garcia emphasized. “Not tomorrow, not next summer.”

Upon being relayed these reactions, “I know. I agree. We’re acting as fast as we can,” assured Mr. Cannon. “The very last thing that’s happening with this right now is that we’re waiting for somebody to get killed before we do something.”

“And this project’s not just a safety issue, it’s a quality of life issue, too,” Mr. Joessel concluded. “This is one of those things that can’t be overlooked or forgotten about. (Walkability), it’s an important piece of Elgin’s overall picture, to keep the city connected with itself and, just as importantly, keep each of us connected to ourselves instead of our cars.”

Despite our sending emails and leaving phone messages, at the time of this writing TxDOT has yet to respond to inquiries.

BeWear False Promises

10 08 2010

After an over two-year delay due to years of grossly self-inflicted mismanagement, all of a sudden out of the blue TxDOT somehow feels optimistic, flush with cash. And, with the help of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA), they are about to resume their MoPac 1 Project. We here at The Placemaking Institute sat up, took another glance at this news then glanced at each other, together thinking another long moment before wondering amongst ourselves: “What the heck’s The Pentagon of Texas up to now?”

Right then with his ever-exquisite timing Our Most Senior Fellow, refreshed by his bout of self-imposed sequestration and rearing to go, unexpectedly bursts forth and states: “Thankfully, thankfully, I have absolutely no idea. But who better to inquire of than one directly in their back pocket?”

Ben Wear (in his Wednesday, July 7, 2010 blog): “(TxDOT) is spending $3.6 million this summer to resurface the stretch from RM 2222 to Lady Bird Lake with a special asphalt that is quieter and less slick in rainy conditions. And they will re-stripe a troublesome bridge in the northbound lanes, just north of the river, that (sic) currently has just two lanes and tends to back up. Instead, by converting current shoulders into an added lane, that bridge will now have three lanes.” TxDOT officials and thus, of course, Wear assure us that this short-term measure will improve flow northbound and “(help) traffic-choked MoPac Boulevard in Central and North Austin.”


Welcome, dear audience, to the Braess Paradox, which “states that in a network in which all the moving entities rationally seek the most efficient route, adding extra capacity can actually reduce the network’s overall efficiency.” This dynamic inverts as well. That is, reducing network capacity can actually improve the system’s effectiveness. Furthermore, Dietrich Braess also noted that “in a user-optimized network, when a new link is added, the change in equilibrium flows might result in a higher cost, implying that users were better off without that link.”

A key to this counterintuitive approach to traffic design lies in manipulating the inherent self-interest of all drivers. So, will adding a lane to the bridge ease traffic on MoPac in the short-term?

TxDOT’s MoPac 1 Engineering Schematic I

TxDOT’s MoPac 1 Engineering Schematic II

With this restriping plan, among other issues drivers entering MoPac from 6th will have to merge into that new third lane – And as we all know how Austinites do nothing but embody the Braess Paradox when it comes to properly merging, especially onto an expressway. Thus, the bottleneck TxDOT is supposedly rectifying will be dispersed into several smaller bottlenecks in those areas where merging must occur.

But that doesn’t mean something can’t or shouldn’t be done to remedy congestion. Because MoPac as well as the rest of Austin’s highways are certainly in dire over-capacity straits due to rapid population increases and a geometric increase in traffic.

Texas Transportation Commission Chair Deirdre Delisi: “During the past 25 years, Texas’ population increased 53 percent. The use of our roads grew 103 percent. The trend is continuing, with some projecting an additional 27 percent in population growth and 67 percent in road usage over the next 25 years.”

What’s TxDOT planning on doing to MoPac in the near future?

Although the transportation department will have no money to spend on new construction projects by 2012, in the next few months MoPac 1’s public involvement, preliminary engineering and environmental processes will resume. They will first complete the schematic design and the NEPA environmental process, which will be turned over to the CTRMA (at a cost of $2 million and 2 years). Then, if the NEPA process results in a “Build” alternative, the CTRMA will develop detailed plans and construct the project. What they intend to do is add a fourth lane on each side of MoPac from FM 734/Parmer Lane in far North Austin to Lady Bird Lake.

Ben Wear (ibid): “The lanes would be tolled ‘managed lanes,’ with tolls likely to vary from hour to hour based on the congestion level of the highway. During peak commuting periods the tolls would be larger and, when traffic is light, might disappear entirely or be minimal. And officials say the estimated $200 million to $220 million for the construction to follow is, if not exactly in the bank waiting, highly likely to be available. Local transportation officials have already set aside $70 million of $543 million promised to TxDOT’s Austin district for new construction over the next 10 years. The rest of the money would be borrowed and paid back from tolls which, because MoPac has so much traffic, would be sufficient to pay back debt for more than 60 percent of the construction tab, as well as later operations costs.”

So, while TxDOT officials emphasize that “the MoPac 1 project will not consider adding tolls to existing lanes,” they will find loopholes to do so by creating new lanes. In this instance they are essentially going to be charging people to drive on the median.

But what’s more disturbing is that most of the money will be borrowed and paid back from estimated future toll road revenues – Especially seeing how even “Standard & Poor’s experience indicates that optimism bias is a consistent trend in toll-road traffic forecasting.  Bondholders and lenders should, therefore, view these forecasts with some degree of caution as they attempt to identify the inherent risks that these forecasts pose for credit quality.”

This at a time when TxDOT forecasts it has only 30% of the funds needed to make the improvements required to meet future travel demand?

This at a time when more than 40% of TxDOT’s budget (more than twice what the agency receives in state gas tax revenue) goes to maintenance?

This at a time when they are using a budgetary shell game (Chairman John Carona told the Texas Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee last fall: “This is wrong. It smacks of trickery.”) to increase funding for roads by tapping into money dedicated to a future rail light-rail system?

All this at a time when, according to the Office of Susan Combs, Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, “Before 2002, TxDOT’s road projects were funded entirely with state and federal revenues. Since then, however, the agency has supplemented these allocations with private partners and borrowed funds generated by various bond issues. TxDOT must service this existing debt before spending any funds on new projects.”

Ah, the world of TxDOT, where everything’s lopsided and flipped upside down. Our Most Senior Fellow wishes he could get away with running his business this way. Because, by behaving in such a manner, TxDOT’s merely continuing merrily skipping along the “darkside of expediency” path, maximizing short-term benefits and incurring long-term socio-economic cost along the way.

And We here at The Placemaking Institute agree with Statesman reader Owen Pelligrin in that “the solution isn’t to try and make more space for cars. The solution is better public transportation that goes from where people live to where people work. So long as people are encouraged to drive themselves everywhere, there will be traffic problems in Austin.”

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