Wear: The road goes on, but this reporter is taking the exit


After spending 15 years covering transportation, Ben Wear considers what’s down the road in Austin transit.

Over the years on this transportation beat, as I found myself contemplating the likelihood that I would someday be writing a final column like the one you’re reading, more than once I envisioned it as some sort of jeremiad.

“Here’s how I really feel about” you-name-it among Austin transportation issues: tollways, rail, speed “cushions,” bike lanes, ride-hailing, parking and, of course, scooters. This retaliatory impulse usually came in the wake of being flamed via email or reader comments online (remember those?) or, more lately, Twitter, for something I had written.

But now that the time has come — I’m taking the buyout offer from the American-Statesman and my last day at work actually occurs before this column hits print — I find myself with no yen to do any such thing. And the editors, to their credit, likely wouldn’t have allowed it anyway.

Really, after 15 years of covering this beat for the Statesman, I’ve more than had my say. Time for someone else to occupy this space.

Better to look forward, even on the lip of retirement. And certainly Central Texas transportation has more than its share of unfinished business, including:

• Critical mass transit. It’s a truism of Austin politics over the past 20 years that when Mayor-then-Sen. Kirk Watson gets involved with an issue, stuff tends to happen. And last month, the senator gave a big signal that he’s ready to get involved in bringing a full-fledged mass transit system to the area.

And that it probably won’t be light rail.

Watson gave a lengthy speech to an architects’ conference on Aug. 23, and he spent the last half of it laying out a transit vision that sounded an awful lot like what Capital Metro’s tornadic new CEO and President Randy Clarke has been talking up: a regional system of autonomous, electric-powered buses moving in platoons along dedicated transit rights of way on or next to Central Texas streets. Watson in his speech reached for what has been a common theme for him over the years: Austin’s tendency to fall into all-or-nothing camps on big issues, quite often leading to the “nothing” result. (CodeNext anyone?)

With transit, he said, a “de facto two-party system” has stifled a mature discussion of what needs to happen — aside from building roads — to address Austin’s stubborn tendency to just keep growing. That split led to failed rail elections in 2000 and 2014, and the creation only of the marginally useful MetroRail commuter line.

“Well, it’s time to do this right,” Watson said, according to a transcript from his office. “We need to go big or we’re done for.”

Clarke, too, will be giving a speech, during a Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce transportation summit Oct. 1, when he will lay out what he recommends for mass transit. All of this could lead to a new transit paradigm in Austin, and a bond election in 2019 or 2020 that could make it a reality.

• Interstate of play. That big, ugly freeway that runs past downtown Austin remains, as it has for at least a generation, the area’s $8.1 billion gorilla. That’s the Texas Department of Transportation’s current price tag to complete a massive expansion of Interstate 35 from Round Rock to Buda, including adding at least one lane to each side and making a score of other improvements to intersections, ramps and frontage roads.

Watson refers to those projects as the “string of pearls,” but given the enormous cost, and the lack of available TxDOT money, it might as well be a string of Hope diamonds. The plan for the past several years has been to build a toll lane on each side and raise at least a good chunk of the cost through borrowing backed by those tolls.

Then Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, late in 2017, developed a righteous aversion to toll roads, catching the spirit from a particularly active and effective faction of the GOP grass roots. So TxDOT’s 10-year funding plan approved last month by the Texas Transportation Commission included less than 10 percent of that $8.1 billion, allotting money for only “development” — environmental clearance, design and perhaps right of way purchases. And, most tellingly, the plan said the project would add nontolled lanes.

Maybe so. Or perhaps some future version of that rolling 10-year plan — TxDOT does a new one each year — will restore the toll component when the political climate is better for that sort of thing.

• Going south on MoPac. That same toll chill put plans for expanding South MoPac Boulevard in the cooler. There was a time early this decade when the project appeared to have momentum. At that point, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority was several years into an environmental study of adding two toll lanes to each side of the expressway from Lady Bird Lake to Slaughter Lane.

Local opposition to what the toll agency had in mind, particularly flyover bridges at the lake, first slowed the project, then a lawsuit put it on a two- to three-year hiatus. That litigation is finished now, but the Abbott and Patrick effect has made it difficult to reanimate the project. Look for this one to come back to life at some point.

• And, oh, yeah. The future also figures to include building Loop 360 overpasses, expanding RM 620, figuring out how scooters, sidewalks and pedestrians can coexist, providing (or limiting) downtown parking, expanding the airport (again), balancing ride-hailing services and taxis. And that’s just a partial list.

But someone else will be covering all that for the Statesman. It’s time for me to back away slowly from the keyboard.

Perhaps you’ve heard the H.L. Mencken quote about being a journalist (my second career after an initial, stultifying decade in the oil and gas business). Mencken said: “As I look back over a misspent life, I find myself more and more convinced that I had more fun doing news reporting than in any other enterprise. It is really the life of kings.”

Mencken had it right, minus the immense wealth and fawning courtiers.

Reporters don’t have to punch a clock, we get to follow our curiosity almost anywhere, and we have license to ask impertinent questions of the powerful. Quite often what we do makes a real difference in the civic sphere. We get to know, often on an intimate basis that can approach friendship, some truly impressive and dedicated people. Reporters are really beholden to almost no institution or creed, other than our own guiding ethical principles. We get to play every day with words, to attempt to concoct a sentence no one else has ever written.

And we get to hang out with other journalists, overall an irreverent and clever breed. There is a lot of laughter in most newsrooms.

It really is the life of kings. In fact, reporters, like monarchs, even have subjects. And verbs, hopefully in agreement.

See what I did there?

Ken Herman, and all the copy editors who saved my bacon over the years, that last one was for you.


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