- Ben Wear American-Statesman Staff
The competition was stiff, but I have settled on the dumbest sentence I wrote this year:
“Toll roads, after several years of reversals in the Legislature, could be making something of a comeback,” I prognosticated with peerless inaccuracy on April 13 after a bill allowing up to 18 toll road projects sailed through a Texas House committee.
Looking back on Texas transportation on 2017, tolls most certainly did not make a comeback. It’s hard to compare, but I’m pretty sure that Equifax, Anthony Scaramucci and the Baylor Bears had a better 2017 than Texas toll road advocates.
That legislation I touted, House Bill 2861, was exterminated by the full House about three weeks later on a 79-52 vote. The Legislature, in other bills, then capped fines for nonpayment of tolls and stipulated that any tax money the Texas Department of Transportation put into toll projects would have to be paid back to the free-road kitty. Two tollways, in Laredo and El Paso, were converted to free roads by legislative mandate. And this month, under pressure from Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the Texas Transportation Commission backed away from putting tax money into 15 huge urban toll projects, including an $8 billion plan for Interstate 35 toll lanes through Central Texas.
In Austin, of course, the North MoPac toll lanes finally opened this year, which compared with not opening this year (like it didn’t in 2015 and 2016, when officials had said it would) certainly counts as a success. The toll lanes appear to be helping substantially at least with some parts of rush-hour congestion, especially southbound in the morning.
Another tollway, Texas 71 east of the airport, also opened this year to better-than-predicted traffic and improvement on the adjacent free lanes. And two more toll roads, Texas 45 Southwest (finally freed from legal uncertainty by a federal judge’s July ruling) and U.S. 183 in East Austin, are under construction.
But the proposed U.S. 183 North toll project has run aground due to TxDOT officials’ sudden and coerced distaste for tolls, and it is unclear what will happen to several other toll proposals in the area’s long-range plans. A comeback, if there is to be one, is way out there in the gloaming.
As for other transportation news in this ebbing year, some highlights (or lowlights, depending on your perspective):
Phone hone: The bipartisan legislative duo of Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, finally completed their yearslong quest for a statewide ban on sending and reading messages on cellphones while driving. But on the day Abbott signed the bill, he also called for snuffing out stricter local phoning-while-driving laws in a special session. The bill they had long sought, in other words, was potentially going to be used to make hand-held phone use behind the wheel more common in more than 40 cities, including Austin. That effort died in the House in the special session, but another such attempt is likely in 2019, and the House will have different leadership then.
(Ride) hail yes: Uber and Lyft, after losing in Austin City Hall and before voters in 2015 and 2016, took their case for light-as-dust regulation a mile north to the Capital. There the companies found a more congenial reception, as they had in about three dozen other states, and a bill banning local ride-hailing laws in favor of state oversight easily passed. Abbott signed it shortly later, and Uber and Lyft immediately ended their yearlong hiatus in Austin. It was otherwise a rough year for Uber, however, with a sexual harassment scandal (pre-Weinstein, no less), the fall of founder Travis Kalanick and, at year’s end, a ruling in the European Union that presages Austin-like regulation tussles in a variety of lovely and historic cities east of Ireland.
CEO on the QT: Capital Metro president and CEO Linda Watson in August announced her retirement at year’s end, setting off a hunt for a replacement. The transit agency’s board, on the advice of a search consultant, decided (like the Austin City Council did in its city manager search) to keep the candidates’ names secret. That legal question rests in the hands of the Texas attorney general’s office. But on Dec. 18, the board decided to voluntarily reveal the names of four finalists, all of them transit industry executives. That key hire should be complete by the end of January.
Bus fuss: That new Capital Metro leader, shortly after taking the reins, will have to deal with the largest shakeup of bus routes in the 33-year-old agency’s history. The board in November agreed to a plan, to take effect in June, that will eliminate or substantively change about half of the agency’s 80 or so bus routes. Some regular riders, those who pay attention to governmental goings-on, reacted with alarm before that board vote. But the directors, looking to stem a several-year ridership decline by emphasizing frequency of bus service over broad geographic coverage, went ahead with the plan anyway. When the actual change hits, other Capital Metro customers likely will react to suddenly quiet bus stops.
Plaza fight: The huge construction hole just east of I-35 and south of East Fifth Street seemed to appear overnight in late summer, visible evidence that Endeavor Real Estate and its partners are finally building a mixed-use development on a former rail yard owned by Capital Metro. But the 99-year lease between the transit agency and the developers, many years in the making, almost fell apart in February. East Austin activists, and some on the City Council, argued that the developers were breaking promises about affordable housing and building heights, and fought to block zoning changes Endeavor sought. But with some late-night tweaks, the city gave its blessing and, after some final i-dotting and t-crossing at Capital Metro, work began. The agency will get $17 million over the next decade under the lease, and more than $2.2 million a year going forward.
Odds and ends: Some work began this summer under Austin’s $720 million transportation bond — quicker stuff on sidewalks mostly — but behind the scenes there was feverish planning on the centerpiece corridor plans, including the release of a plan to overhaul the Drag. Expect more soon on those corridor plans.
• A brief push to build a system of Six Flags-style gondolas for transit was snuffed in March after a study confirmed that it was a dumb idea.
• TxDOT turned 100 years old in April.
• Two airliners had a fender bender at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in May.
• The new owners of Texas 130 south of Mustang Ridge in September began a $60 million repair of the 5-year-old tollway.
• And President Donald Trump’s vaunted $1 trillion infrastructure program at year’s end remained just vague rhetoric. But the administration apparently did make it possible for me to close this column by saying “Merry Christmas.”
Happy holidays, Central Texas.