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Texas A&M traffic study paints bleak picture of future Austin-area traffic

By Ben Wear - American-Statesman Staff

Tim Lomax doesn’t believe, despite what he and his fellow transportation researchers said in a recent report, that driving home to Round Rock from downtown Austin in 2035 will really take three hours and 13 minutes.

People wouldn’t stand for it. They’d move. Get a job closer to home — or in another state. Something.

“I’ve characterized this as a very good model of something that won’t happen,” said Lomax, a senior research engineer with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute who has been studying U.S. commuting patterns for three decades.

But the study of how Central Texas growth will affect Interstate 35 in 2035, finalized in August but unveiled publicly a few weeks ago, does represent the researchers’ best take on what could happen unless sweeping change occurs in the area’s transportation system and in the choices made by individuals and employers.

According to the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s 2035 transportation plan, the five-county area should grow from more than 1.8 million people now to about 3.25 million in 2035, an 80 percent increase in just over 20 years.

The picture painted by the 97-page study is, in the words of study contributor Ginger Goodin of the transportation institute, “kind of bleak.”

The study, using the area’s officially accepted transportation modeling program, shows that even if every project in Central Texas’ $28.4 billion, 25-year transportation plan is built — including local and regional rail systems — driving 15 miles to downtown Austin from Round Rock in the morning would take 99 minutes. The ride from Buda in the south would be a mind-numbing 119 minutes to go 12 miles. Those trips averaged about 32 minutes in 2011.

That’s bad. But wait until quitting time. Going back to Round Rock would take 193 minutes. Buda would be 157 minutes away.

But what if the area, as transportation planners are discussing now, builds express toll lanes on I-35 all the way from the Texas 45 North tollway in Round Rock to Texas 45 Southeast near Buda? The drive in from Round Rock, in the non-tolled lanes, would edge down to 69 minutes and from Buda falls to 82 minutes. Going home, however, the trip north actually worsens, to 207 minutes. Buda would still be 125 minutes away.

The trips in the express lanes, however, would be quick because tolls would be dynamic, fluctuating to ensure that speeds in those lanes remain at 45 mph or more. The study doesn’t address how high a toll would have to be to get someone to choose a two- or three-hour trip in the free lanes alongside.

The yearlong, $384,000 study is part of an overall effort ordered by the 2011 Legislature to examine the state’s most congested urban stretches.

It looked at eight scenarios of what might happen with the area’s transportation system. That included the much-discussed swapping of I-35 and Texas 130 on the metro area’s eastern edge, making I-35 through Austin a tollway while making Texas 130 free and redubbing it I-35.

Aside from being legally impossible at this point and politically unfeasible at probably any point in the future, the study shows that such a flip-flop wouldn’t even help.

Trips home to northern and southern suburbs on the former I-35, paying tolls, would still take two and three hours. The reason: 86 percent of all trips on I-35 are locally generated, the study says. No one looking to go from Travis Heights to the Highland Mall area, for instance, would travel miles to the east and take the current Texas 130 even if it were free.

“There would appear to be no fix to I-35 congestion that includes (Texas) 130,” wrote Mike Heiligenstein, executive director of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, in a letter to the report’s authors this summer after seeing their findings. “All the exhaustive discussions that have centered on moving trucks to 130 are simply not realistic or attainable.”

The report’s authors, looking for potential solutions, also ran some models making assumptions about radical changes in where people live and work, how they travel and even how they go to school. Researchers included among their assumptions: shifting 40 percent of commuter trips to work-at-home jobs, reducing university commuting by 30 percent with classes offered over the Internet, cutting shopping trips by 10 percent because of online shopping, and increasing carpooling and transit use by 25 percent.

Do all that, the study showed, and I-35 commuting times returned to reasonable levels.

How community and employment leaders can make such sweeping changes happen, officials said, was outside the scope of the study. But transportation officials should do what they can to facilitate that, Lomax said.

“Our solution, to the extent we offer one, is that the community needs to decide what it wants to do, and it probably needs to do a lot more than it has been thinking,” Lomax said. “Two managed lanes on I-35 are not the salvation. Transit in this corridor is not the salvation. Making downtown walkable is not the solution.

“The solutionists need to get together and agree that everyone has a point.”

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