Paul Counter has heard what the city has in mind for South Lamar Boulevard, about how the center “chicken lane” his customers use to get into and out of Matt’s El Rancho’s parking lot would be replaced with a raised median that would cut off left turns. He’s not happy about it.
“I’m confused as to how taking out the center turn lane is a good thing,” said Counter, the restaurant’s general manager. “It’s really frustrating when you’re trying to operate a business and this sort of stuff is going on.”
If the city of Austin’s $720 million transportation bond passes Nov. 8, that sort of stuff, and a lot of other changes to major Austin roads, would go on over the next six to eight years. At least 14 miles of travel lanes would be added in various places, while roughly 15 lane-miles would be lost to through traffic in other spots, mostly to make way for buses.
Another 20 lane-miles of continuous center turn lanes — like the one on South Lamar — would be replaced with center medians that would limit where traffic can turn. The city and its engineers see this change as a beneficial trade-off, speeding traffic and cutting accidents even as it reduces access to businesses along the road.
Mayor Steve Adler, whose staff shepherded the bond proposal through a gantlet of community groups and then the City Council, said the proposed “smart corridor” changes, even with the lost lanes, would improve traffic congestion and safety.
In at least one case, East Riverside Drive, Adler said the proposed elimination of two lanes to make way for bus-only lanes would be subject to review to make sure that it reduces traffic congestion rather than exacerbates it.
“There is a choice and a trade-off with all things that government does,” Adler said last week in an interview with the American-Statesman. “Sometimes, there’s a prioritization that has to be made between congestion relief and the wishes of some businesses along the road.”
What goes where
The bond proposal has three major elements: a $482 million piece that would provide money for overhauls of major roads like South Lamar; $137 million for bike, sidewalk, trail, safety and repair projects on streets throughout the city; and $101 million for expansions of several highways and major roads in West and Northwest Austin.
That last piece would actually add length to the local road system, perhaps as much as 15 lane-miles on Parmer Lane, Spicewood Springs Road, RM 620 and RM 2222.
Those projects include construction of a short bypass road from RM 620 to RM 2222 to the east, along with added lanes on both roads. Engineers believe this project could significantly reduce a miles-long morning backup for commuters and those headed to Vandegrift High School.
On the other side of the coin, the corridor program would dedicate some travel lanes to buses and replace the continuous center turn lanes with those limited-access medians. Adler argues the turn lane changes would allow traffic to flow faster, smoother and with fewer fender-benders, as people getting in and out of the center turn lanes cause constant minor slowdowns that add up to significant congestion.
Findings on delays, safety
A 1997 University of Nebraska study, commissioned by the federal Transportation Research Board, provides some backup to the mayor’s assertions, at least on safety.
The researchers compared the traffic and safety conditions of four-lane roads, five-lane roads with a two-way turn lane and four-lane roads with center medians. The undivided four-lane roads, with people backing up traffic in the inner lane to make lefts, were both much slower and more dangerous than the other alternatives.
But between the two choices at play in the bond proposition — a road with a center turn lane or with a median — the two designs “yield similar delays,” the 143-page study says. The raised medians, however, have “slightly higher delays” in areas with heavy traffic volumes or an unusual volume of left-turns.
Those delays can become significant if the left turn bays cut into that median are not sufficiently long to allow turners to queue up, University of Texas transportation professor Randy Machemehl told the Statesman.
If the bays are too short, he said, “it takes a lane out of service.”
The study also said streets with the medians “appear to be associated with fewer accidents” than those with center turn lanes, particularly when traffic volume tops 20,000 vehicles a day. All four of the affected Austin corridors are well above that traffic level, according to 2014 counts.
The study acknowledges adding raised medians can hurt businesses, but it said “the typical business may be able to overcome some reduction of access if it offers good, reliable service.”
Inconvenient but beneficial
Roger Falk with the Travis County Taxpayers Union, which opposes the bond proposition, called it “a heartless plan with regard to those businesses” along the corridors. People will need to make U-turns to reach restaurants and stores on the opposite side of the road, he said, either increasing traffic use or discouraging people from visiting the businesses.
But Ward Tisdale, president of the Real Estate Council of Austin, one of several business groups to endorse the bond proposition, said updating city arterials, including with added bike lanes and wider sidewalks, will encourage dense development in the central city. The city needs the housing and the property taxes growing from the development, he said.
“On the whole, it’s going to be beneficial in getting people from point A to point B in Austin, and it is long overdue,” Tisdale said. “We’ve got to take the blinders off. People move to Austin, Texas. They always have. So we have to plan for them this time, and stop pretending this city isn’t changing.”
But that change will take a toll for some, including during the inevitably disruptive construction phase.
Counter, with Matt’s El Rancho, said the iconic Tex-Mex restaurant would be able to weather the change.
“It’ll be inconvenient for our guests, but I don’t think it’s going to hurt us that much because people are willing to wait an hour for a table,” he said. “People will find a way to get here. But I feel bad for some of the mom-and-pop businesses.”
The road proposals in Austin’s $720 million bond would in some cases replace traffic lanes with bus-only lanes, parking or bikeways. In several of the “smart corridor” plans, continuous center turn lanes would be replaced with raised, vegetated medians. The bond proposals also include lane additions in a few cases.
Lost travel lanes (approximately 15 lane-miles)
East Riverside Drive (I-35 to Texas 71, 3 miles): One travel lane each way replaced by bus-only lanes.
South Lamar Boulevard (Riverside Drive to Ben White Boulevard, 3.3 miles): One lane in each direction becomes bus-only during rush hours.
Guadalupe Street (MLK Jr. Boulevard to West 29th Street, 1 mile): One lane each direction replaced by bus-only lanes.
Lost center turn lanes, replaced by medians (approximately 20 lane miles)
South Lamar Boulevard (3.3 miles)
North Lamar Boulevard (U.S. 183 to Parmer Lane, 5 miles)
Airport Boulevard (Lamar Boulevard to U.S 183, 6.5 miles)
Burnet Road (Koenig Lane to MoPac Boulevard, 5 miles)
Added lanes (at least 14 lane-miles)
Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (U.S. 183 to east of Decker Lane, 2 miles): One added lane each direction.
Parmer Lane (Texas 45 North tollway to RM 1431, 3 miles): Added third lane in each direction.
RM 620 to RM 2222 bypass (half-mile): A new four-lane road from RM 620 to RM 2222, plus added northbound lane on RM 620 from Steiner Ranch Boulevard to the bypass, and an added eastbound lane on RM 2222 from the bypass to McNeil Road.
Spicewood Springs Road (west of Mesa Drive to Loop 360, ¾ of a mile): Added lane in each direction.
Loop 360 and Westlake Drive: Build overpass and associated frontage roads.
Source: City of Austin