Wear: Some spring thoughts about toll road and scooter bans

April 15, 2018
Capital Metro officials hope to analyze what to do about this troublesome crossing of the MetroRail tracks and Lamar Boulevard, seen here in 2012, just east of the Crestview MetroRail Station in North Austin. RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Doing some spring cleaning of transportation news …

Toll lull. Some tollway advocates, in the months since Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick suddenly came out strong against building more toll roads, had whispered that all of this nonsense (in their view) was just political theater. Wait until after the March GOP primary, they said, and watch: Abbott would quietly give an all clear to toll to his appointees on the Texas Transportation Commission, which governs the Texas Department of Transportation, and those toll projects will reawaken.

Hasn’t happened, according to folks I’ve asked about it. The toll gate is still down, and it is far from clear when, or if, it will rise. That means that planned expansion of Texas 130 (an extra lane on each side and more flyovers at U.S. 290) is still in the ditch, even though only toll revenue from that road was to be used for the project. Also sidelined indefinitely: the almost-ready-to-go project to add toll lanes in the middle of U.S. 183 between MoPac Boulevard and Texas 45 North, along with environmental and engineering studies for potential South MoPac and Oak Hill “Y” toll lanes.

To tell the truth, the after-the-primary theory never made much sense to me. Neither Abbott nor Patrick was likely to have serious primary opposition when they issued their toll edicts in November, nor was Patrick about to switch gears and run for governor against Abbott. So whatever political imperative made them bring the hammer down — or even an honest change of heart on the subject, always a possibility — did not seem logically tied to the primary.

Scooter boot. A little over a week ago, the American-Statesman and other media told you that a flock of electrically powered rental scooters, from a company called Bird Rides Inc., had suddenly perched on Austin streets, and the city of Austin intended to impound those scooters found to be blocking the public right of way. Officials from Bird — founded in Santa Monica, Calif., about seven months ago by former Uber and Lyft executive Travis VanderZanden — responded by saying they had no interest in blocking pedestrian pathways and would instruct customers to park the scooters on the street instead.

The city began impounding them anyway, said Austin Transportation Department spokeswoman Marissa Monroy. Monroy said that, as of Thursday, city enforcement officials had picked up 55 scooters. Then, after discussing each violation with Bird, Monroy said, the scooters were returned to the company and no fines were charged.

That soft regulatory hand — the city is trying to maintain peaceable relations with various rental bike and scooter companies eyeing Austin — might be something less than effective. Using the Bird app, Thursday I counted 47 of the scooter icons scattered about downtown Austin and the South Congress Avenue area. That is more or less the number I saw on the app when the scooters first appeared April 5.

A Bird spokeswoman said later that the app only shows the scooters nearest the location of whoever is looking at it at any given time, implying that there might be many more of them around Austin. Anyway, on a drive around downtown, I saw about 10 Bird scooters — two of them appeared to be on the verge of being rented by a couple of guys studying their cellphones — and each scooter was sitting on a sidewalk.

Making the grade. The beginnings of a solution to a long-standing MetroRail problem likely will be among the 50 or so projects recommended for funding under a $440 million Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization program. But what we know so far raises the possibility that the cure will inflict a good deal of pain.

The CAMPO list includes $4.7 million (Capital Metro would throw in an additional $1.2 million) to do preliminary engineering on a possible “grade separation” where MetroRail crosses North Lamar Boulevard just east of the Crestview station. This intersection of rail and road has been bedeviling motorists since well before the commuter line opened in March 2010, back to when the first rail cars began testing on the line.

The problem is complicated and mechanical, but the essence is that the gates come down to block Lamar traffic when a train is approaching from the north or the south and pauses at the nearby station. And those lowered gates cause long backups on Lamar during rush hour.

As Capital Metro and a consultant look at this, at least one possibility would be to sink Lamar underground, below the tracks, rather than building a rail bridge over the street. But you don’t need an engineering degree (which, oddly, I have) to figure out that such a project probably would be much more expensive and time-consuming than building a rail bridge, and create monumental traffic problems on Lamar during construction.

Capital Metro in an emailed statement said the CAMPO money will allow it to “look at the range of alternatives and their pros/cons, impacts and costs.” One to watch.

Frank, not Lee. Most Austinites of course will remember Lee Leffingwell, the former airline pilot who was Austin’s mayor from 2009 to the beginning of 2015, and a City Council member for several years before that. Folks to the north, meanwhile, are more familiar with his son Frank Leffingwell, a Round Rock City Council member and tax attorney who attempted earlier this year to become Williamson County judge.

That effort failed in the GOP primary in March, when Leffingwell lost to Justice of the Peace Bill Gravell.

But that defeat rendered Frank Leffingwell available to be appointed to the seven-member Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority board, which has suddenly found itself in need of a Williamson County member. Current member Amy Ellsworth, the general manager of Community Impact News, I’m told, is leaving the Austin area to work at another company location.

Leffingwell, the Williamson County Commissioners Court decided April 3, will assume the toll authority board post in May after he leaves the Round Rock City Council, and serve until Ellsworth’s term ends Jan. 31.