Austin Traffic

One of the biggest growing pains Austin has experienced in recent years is our traffic congestion. The 2012-13 INRIX Traffic Scorecard Annual Report ranked Austin as the fourth worst traffic city in the country, with motorists wasting 38 hours each year in traffic.

For regular workday commuters, this is not surprising, as the amount of time drivers have to spend to get anywhere in the city seems to just keep on growing. The tide of population growth has greatly outpaced the area’s ability to upgrade its roads, and in many cases, congestion in key traffic arteries was an issue even before the city’s explosive growth. This is due partly to Austin’s unique geography, which restricts where roads can be added or expanded, and partly to the slow pace of the process for funding major construction, not to mention the time and upheaval caused by the construction itself. Finally, with the passage of last fall’s statewide Proposition 1, the Texas Department of Transportation appears to have the funding and initiative to make long-term efforts to make our driving lives easier.

One of Austin’s key routes and a consistent source of driver headaches is MoPac (a.k.a. MoPac Boulevard or Loop 1). For the past 18 months, work has been done to expand North MoPac from Lady Bird Lake to US 183, and it’s nowhere near completion. The project involves adding a toll lane to each side of the six-lane freeway from just north of Lady Bird Lake to Parmer Lane, along with seven miles of sound walls and about three miles of bike and pedestrian facilities. The toll lanes will enable drivers to pay a toll and drive in what is hoped to be a high-speed, express lane. Prices for the fast lane will vary based on how many drivers want to use it.

The extensive work has been done in such a way so as to mitigate the impact on drivers during construction, but this has meant slow progress, with the scheduled late 2015 completion goal already pushed back to mid to late 2016. Even then, Austin drivers shouldn’t get too excited once that project is done, because work on South MoPac, south of Lady Bird Lake, will just be beginning.

In far South Austin, work on new underpasses at Slaughter Lane and La Crosse Avenue, near the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, likely will begin in 2016 and take an estimated three years to complete. This will be far south enough that it won’t regularly impact most Austinites, but the same can’t be said for the South MoPac toll lane project. That three-year project, slated to start in 2017, will add two lanes to each side from the river to just north of Slaughter.

Austin’s most notoriously congested and chaotic thoroughfare is probably I-35, but TxDOT is ready with major improvement projects, which may cause short-term headaches but hopefully will provide long-term solutions. Four improvement projects from the Lady Bird Lake to south of William Cannon will begin in the next 18 months to add lanes, new overpasses, turnaround bridges and some frontage road bypass lanes.

In another five years, barring any major changes, TxDOT will implement a plan to alter how I-35 passes through downtown Austin. The highest-profile aspect of the plan is to bury the main lanes from Cesar Chavez Street to 15th Street, which has drawn inquiries as to whether the work will be done to allow ground-level development on top of the freeway (a process called “cut and cap”). The project also will reportedly involve replacing overpasses, reworking entrances and exits, and adding a lane to the upper deck by narrowing shoulders and reinforcing the current support columns.

The I-35 project also calls for building a toll lane on each side of the lower level and through downtown. Those toll lanes will be extended south of Lady Bird Lake, as well as north of 51st Street to Round Rock. And with other work – from Georgetown to San Marcos – on this $4.3 billion I-35 project drawing board, it appears that road improvements will be ongoing for another decade.

With additional construction planned for US 183 in East Austin, and other proposals for RM 620 and Loop 360 also in discussion, the good news is that long-term improvements are underway; we just have to deal with the short-term construction hassles. And with the continued daily influx of new Austin transplants, it probably wouldn’t hurt to consider ways to solve our traffic woes the old fashioned way: by looking for ways to reduce driving.

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