Juliana Benavides loves baseball, her professional home. And she loves South Austin, her actual home for the first 25 years of her life — until June. Blame Austin traffic.
Benavides, an account executive with the Round Rock Express, and her partner Carissa Sepeda, who also had a job in Round Rock, this spring decided to move near Interstate 35 and RM 620.
They left behind friends, family, familiar haunts — and a 45-mile commute that, on a good day, took 75 minutes.
“Basically my paycheck went to my gas,” Benavides said. “If we had it our way, we would have stayed down south in our house and dealt with the traffic. But just for sanity purposes, we moved up north.
“I now have a 15-minute commute, and it’s awesome.”
Central Texas’ population has exploded over the past decade, with a 37 percent increase in Travis, Williamson and Hays counties between 2002 and 2012. But that growth, abetted and celebrated by the area’s political and business leaders, has come with a behind-the-wheel cost for their constituents and customers.
The number of cars and trucks has increased on most area highways over the past decade, although there have been some exceptions. I-35 through the center of Austin, for instance, has seen a slight decrease in traffic volume, in part due to the construction of the parallel toll road Texas 130.
But the car and truck counts on most Central Texas roads and analytical reports show what anyone who has lived in the area for a while knows intuitively: Getting around takes much longer and is more unpredictable than it was a generation ago, or even a few years ago. According to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute’s closely watched Urban Mobility Report, in 1982 an Austin-area driver could expect a rush hour trip to take 9 percent longer than during off hours of free flowing traffic. The average delay in 2012 was calculated to be 32 percent, more than tripling in that 30-year span.
“We all love growth,” said Alan Pisarski, a Virginia-based transportation consultant and author of several books on commuting. “Politicians love to take credit for jobs created. And they don’t think about the fact that every job created means another commuter in the morning, and another at night.”
Central Texas has seen a historic burst of transportation construction in Central Texas over the past decade, including almost 125 miles of tollways, a massive upgrade to the I-35/Ben White Boulevard junction in South Austin and the opening of a 32-mile commuter rail line. At the same time, the most critical north-south arteries in a metropolitan area oriented along that axis — I-35 and MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) — have seen only minimal improvements. Projects to add capacity to both roads are now in the works.
A $200 million project scheduled to begin late this year will add a toll lane in each direction on MoPac from Lady Bird Lake to Parmer Lane, and a preliminary idea would add a toll lane in each direction to I-35 through Austin, though that wouldn’t happen for several years. Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell is pushing for the construction of an urban rail line that in an initial phase, costing a half billion dollars or more, would run from downtown to the University of Texas to the Mueller neighborhood in East Austin. And the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority has at least five more tollway projects in the planning stages.
But it’s not yet clear how much any of that work will improve traffic flow around the region. A comprehensive solution might be hard to come by.
“We should be a little sanguine about some of the congestion,” Pisarski said, “because it is a sign of growth and improvement. And Austin, if it isn’t the poster child for that situation, it is close. It’s just growing faster than leaders can keep up with on almost all public functions, including roads.”
The consequence is that transportation now dominates the thoughts and daily lives of Central Texans, and figures into long-term decisions about where to live and work, in ways that would be astonishing to anyone who left the area even 20 years ago. Anne Giles, a Realtor with Gottesman Residential Real Estate who has been selling homes in Austin since 1994, said a home’s place in the area’s transportation mosaic is now the top consideration for most buyers.
“It didn’t used to be this big,” Giles said. “It’s always a negotiation and a compromise between various factors. But transportation and traffic patterns have become a bigger factor in that compromise.”
That compromise can take many forms: Giving up time in return for more square footage in a less expensive suburban home, or sacrificing that square footage to find something closer; taking a train or bus to work, or riding a bike, perhaps adding time to the commute but saving money and shedding some road-related stress; changing jobs to get closer to home, or moving to shorten a commute.
In an area with about 1.8 million people, the iterations are endless. So, increasingly, is the traffic.
Robbie Wright’s office is just a stairway away from the master bedroom.
His path through Central Texas’ vigorous tech industry has landed him in several offices around the area, including at Dell Inc. in Round Rock, SolarWinds in Southwest Austin and, for a time, at a San Antonio company. Outfoxing the traffic, he said, has been a constant exercise in strategy and creative routing.
“There were times when I would cut out a little early, get close to where I was going, then stop and work somewhere for another hour,” said Wright, 36, who is now in product marketing with CommVault, a data storage company. “I would carve time out of the middle of the day and commute then so I wouldn’t have to spend twice as much time commuting later.”
Now he telecommutes at least four days a week, working in what would otherwise be the fifth bedroom of his family’s 3,250-square-foot home in Jester Estates off RM 2222. He is part of a work team that includes another half-dozen or so Central Texas employees, but also colleagues in California, Michigan, Virginia and North Carolina. He goes to the company’s Round Rock office perhaps once a week, and even then he drives in after the morning traffic rush has eased.
“We don’t have to deal with the traffic,” he said.
He does have to deal with his three children, who are home-schooled by this wife Shanna.
“I want them to come in and talk to me, if I have time,” Wright said. “If the door is open, they can come in. If the door is closed (and they come in), somebody better be bleeding.”
Working at home, Wright said, allows him to sleep later by avoiding the drive time. And he said being out of an office environment keeps distractions to a minimum.
“I’m a person who doesn’t like wasting a ton of time in traffic,” he said. “So it makes me much more productive. Instead of spending an extra hour in traffic, I spend it playing with the kids, or doing more work. That’s a tremendous fill for me.”
The two-wheeled alternative
Alan Westwick commutes by bike at least a couple of days a week from the home he and his wife Sheryl own on a cul-de-sac near Bee Cave Road and Walsh Tarlton Lane. He works as a principal engineer at Silicon Labs downtown, just across West Cesar Chavez Street from the Butler Hike and Bike Trail.
The company encourages bicycle commuting by its employees. Both Silicon Labs buildings have showers, and the company built a secure bike storage area in the parking garage, complete with pumps and bike repair tools.
Leaving the car at home on Mondays and Thursdays, in Westwick’s case, is not really about the traffic. Or at least it’s not about delay or excessive time spent in the car. The drive is less than five miles and, even at rush hour, only 15 minutes long.
“But I figure it’s one less car on the road,” said Westwick, 51, who has lived in Austin since 1984 and has seen the transition from small city to metropolis. “For me, a lot of it is just exercise.”
That his commute is so short, Westwick said, is mostly an accident of timing.
“I recognize that we’re lucky,” he said. “We bought our house in 1991, which was in the middle of a big real estate bust here. So we were able to afford a house really close in. Not everyone can afford to do that now.”
Westwick says that over the years, as traffic has grown worse in the area, he and his wife increasingly have narrowed their life to the general downtown area. But at least once a week he does venture out into the heart of peak traffic, leaving the office about 6 p.m. Tuesdays (one of the days he takes his car to work) and trudging up MoPac to “Men’s Bad Movie Night” at a home near Parmer Lane.
Under the two-year tradition, which involves several old friends gathering to watch execrable 1950s science fiction movies and other slapdash cinema, each of the participants brings something for the meal. Because of his uncertain commuting time, however, “they have me bring the dessert so the others can get started. They don’t have me bring salad.”
Westwick expects to be fighting MoPac congestion on Tuesdays for a long time to come.
“There are a lot of bad movies,” Westwick said. “I had no idea.”
Unlike the Central Austin section of I-35, which according to Texas Department of Transportation figures saw fewer cars and trucks in 2012 than in 2002, the highway just south of the Travis County line saw a 33 percent increase. Credit the boom of Kyle, Buda and Hays County, which experienced a population increase of 62 percent in those 10 years.
Angela and Henry Lopez are part of that boom. They moved to Hometown Kyle, a subdivision, in 2006, getting a home of almost 3,000 square feet for about $150,000, Angela Lopez said. A home of that size in Central Austin would cost several times that amount.
“In Kyle, you get more bang for your buck,” she said.
But there is a cost for that square footage and the relative serenity of Kyle. Angela Lopez, 40, works in Lakeway, 45 miles away, and her husband, who is 50, toils in the Arboretum area in Northwest Austin. Both of them work for the same title company, but in different branch offices.
Her commute, on small back-country roads like RM 150 and RM 12, is relatively uncongested, and she can get to work in about 50 minutes. Her husband, consigned by geography to MoPac or Loop 360, spends 90 minutes in the car — each way.
“Every week, we’re both having to get a tank of gas,” she said. “And my husband drives a (pickup) truck, so it’s not that cheap.”
Kyle has grown from about 6,000 people in 2002 to more than 30,000 in 2012, so the small-town qualities that attracted the couple to town are rapidly deteriorating. They’re thinking of moving again, she said, but not to Austin and what would inevitably be a much smaller house. No, Angela Lopez said, they’re looking at being out in the country somewhere, with some land.
And a long commute, still.
Doing the locomotion
Tony Burton travels about 20 miles each way from his Cedar Park home to his work downtown Austin as a training and development director for a medical software company. His monthly cost: $4 net for MetroRail, plus a few dollars for the gas it takes to drive a couple of miles each way to the Lakeline train station.
Burton, after being laid off from a job in Northwest Austin close to his home, got the downtown job in 2010, a few months after Capital Metro opened its 32-mile MetroRail line from Leander. He was leery of taking the train at first, which at that time had no midday runs. What if he needed to get back out to Cedar Park for his kids or for an emergency?
But the case for taking the train was strong: no stress of driving, wildly reduced gasoline costs, a chance to read or work during the ride of about 45 minutes. And his company provides employees a $60 parking reimbursement allowance, which can be used instead on Capital Metro’s $64monthly MetroRail pass.
“It’s about the same amount of time to get to work,” Burton said. “If it’s raining, traffic is even worse, or if there’s an accident, the train becomes faster” than taking his car.
Central Texas has just one local passenger line, limiting its viability as a commuter option to only those who live close enough to a train station to walk, bike or drive to it conveniently, and whose job is likewise convenient to another station down the line. At this point, those parameters as well as Capital Metro’s paucity of train cars (just six in the inventory) mean that fewer than 1,500 people use the train on a daily basis to get to and from work.
“I’m addicted to it,” Burton said. “So I really wish it was in other parts of the city.”
There’s an ancillary benefit to taking the train, Burton said, one that doesn’t show up in Capital Metro’s promotional materials for the train service.
“I can play golf without getting in trouble,” Burton said, “because I have $200 extra dollars each month.”
Ben Wear has covered Austin-area transportation since 2003. He has focused on how overburdened roads affect Central Texans, as well as on budgets and spending by Capital Metro, the city of Austin and the state Department of Transportation.
This is part of an occasional series by American-Statesman reporters chronicling how Central Texas’ rapid growth is changing the way we live.
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