- By Bridget Grumet American-Statesman Staff
Remember that amazing feeling you used to get in school when the teacher threw a question at you and you actually knew the answer?
We got a taste of that again with the launch of Austin Answered, a new way for readers to ask us questions.
Over the past week we received more than 160 queries — including nearly a dozen we’ve covered in previous stories.
We plan to start a voting round soon on some of the questions we haven’t covered. But in the meantime, we wanted to share the stories we’ve had about some of the issues that sparked your curiosity:
1. “Is MoPac ever going to be finished?” We’ll leave the witticisms on this dreaded highway project to @EvilMoPacATX, but our own Ben Wear has reported an end is in sight. Officials expect the rest of the northbound toll lane to open by the end of September, and the southbound toll lane should open a few weeks after that.
2. “What happened to the green Dillo’s?” The green trolley-style cars stopped circulating around downtown in October 2009, with too few riders willing to pay 50 cents for the trip. The four diesel-powered buses were sold in 2010 on govdeals.com, a sort of eBay for surplus government goods, for prices ranging from $24,000 to $27,000, according to this Cap Metro blog post.
3. “What did Austin’s skyline look like 30, 40, 50, or if available, 60 years ago compared to today?” Would you settle for 20 years ago? Check out our slider showing downtown views from 1997 vs. 2012. You can also see how the downtown backdrop of the Austin City Limits music festival has changed every year since 2005 and watch our new video, Before and after: Watch Austin boom before your eyes.
4. “How many people use Austin light rail daily?” Last year, when a Forbes commentary declared Austin’s MetroRail ‘a monument to government waste,’ the weekday boardings were just under 3,000. Still, that was about 650 more rides a day than it was in 2012.
5. “Why did the citizens of Austin not vote for light rail?” The reasons abound, but as Ben Wear reported after 57 percent of voters rejected the plan in 2014, support was strong only in the areas that would have been served by the proposed route to the old Highland Mall. Some rail supporters cast “no” votes because they wanted a different route along Guadalupe Street/North Lamar Boulevard. And then there was the price tag: An estimated $217 tax hike for the next 20 years on a home with a $200,000 taxable value.
6. “The City of Austin made Ordinance 20151217-099 (authorizing a Homestead Preservation District) into law. Has it ever been used?” Austin has one such district in East Austin — roughly bounded by Interstate 35, MLK Boulevard, Springdale Road and Lady Bird Lake — where a slice of the new property tax revenue is set aside for affordable housing programs. As we explained in June, however, a veto by Gov. Greg Abbott will prevent the city from expanding that effort to three other districts largely east of Interstate 35.
7. “What happened to the commuter train that was supposed to run on MoPac tracks?” The plans for Lone Star Rail were derailed last year, after Union Pacific said it would no longer discuss letting commuter trains run on its freight line from San Antonio to Georgetown. You can read more about Union Pacific’s reasoning here.
8. “We are forever hearing about how California is taking over Austin. So how many current Austin residents really are from California?” We looked at the numbers a couple of years ago, with the help of Austin economist Brian Kelsey, and learned that Florida had overtaken California in terms of sending newcomers to Travis County.
9. “Why (do officials) build all the roads for bikes and (cyclists) don’t get charged for their licenses like car drivers?” True, you don’t need a license to ride a bike. But cyclists, even those who don’t own a car and never pump a gallon of gas, still chip in for city roads. Ben Wear wrote a 2015 column explaining how.
10. “Did the Convention Center lose $26 million in 2016? Do only 2% of Austin tourists come here because of a convention?” Sort of. We reported in March that the Convention Center posted a $24 million annual loss, though officials are quick to note that figure only tells part of the story, as conventions bring visitors who patronize other businesses and pay taxes on those transactions, so they contribute a larger economic impact. Separately, we have reported on a consultant’s finding that Convention Center visitors account for about 2 percent of the “room nights” at hotels citywide, though the number is closer to 10 percent for downtown hotel rooms.
11. “Why is (Austin) so racially and economically segregated?” This complex question was the focus of Dan Zehr’s richly-reported 2015 series, Inheriting Inequality, and his subsequent story about Austin being the most economically segregated major metro area in the U.S. Read these stories — we can’t do them justice here in two sentences.