Things got crazy silly last week when the Austin City Council made a slow-speed getaway in airport vans (“Baby Driver,” it wasn’t; more like “Yakety Sax”) from reporters looking to identify the finalists being interviewed for the vacant city manager job.
Your elected city leaders either did or didn’t violate state open meetings law — and might end up revealing the candidates’ names anyway if the American-Statesman prevails in a lawsuit we filed last week — but for sure their wacky disappearing act was not a profile in transparency.
Well, we could be in for a second round as the Capital Metro board prepares to choose finalists to succeed Linda Watson as the transit agency’s president and chief executive officer. That eight-member appointed board includes three members of that selfsame, furtive Austin City Council: Delia Garza, Ann Kitchen and Sabino “Pio” Renteria.
The transit board wants to vote on a new agency head at its monthly meeting in late January — Watson is retiring at year’s end — and so its search consultant, Krauthamer and Associates, is about to present it with a list of viable candidates. Board interviews of finalists therefore would likely occur in December.
The last time the Capital Metro board did this sifting thing, when Watson was hired in 2010, Capital Metro resisted an open records request from the Statesman to reveal the identities of six semifinalists for the job. The Texas attorney general eventually ruled in the newspaper’s favor and the names came out, but only after Watson had won the competition.
In the meantime, the board had publicly named two finalists, Watson and New Jersey transit consultant Deborah Wathen Finn, and both were brought in for an interview process that included taking questions from the general public. The finalist process, in other words, occurred in bright sunshine even if the semifinal round remained shrouded.
Peter Partheymuller, a marvelously named press wrangler for Capital Metro, told me last week that the board has not yet decided if the candidates’ identifies will be released. Released, at any rate, without a legal challenge.
The common reason for keeping the names on the QT, generally advanced by search consultants, is that the pool of stellar candidates will be diminished if potential applicants know that their current bosses will find out they have a wandering eye. And anyone who ever pursued a new job while holding one — in other words, virtually all of us — gets that logic.
But Capital Metro’s semi-public search last time produced Watson, who has gotten generally positive reviews for her seven-plus years leading the agency. And the public pays the agency about a quarter of a billion dollars a year in sales taxes to run a public transit system.
Seems like those things ought to matter.
Some other thoughts, while wondering what to do professionally now that I’ll never have to write another “when will MoPac open” story …
When will the U.S. 183 tollway in East Austin open?
Oops, sorry, muscle memory. But, since someone brought it up …
It’s probably too early to have a solid idea.
It’s a huge project: eight miles of 10-to-12 lanes built from scratch, two complicated highway interchanges, a river crossing and multiple spans over yawning Walnut Creek. But the project, now at about the one-third mark, is running on time, said Steve Pustelnyk, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority’s community relations director. That would mean the several miles north of the Colorado River would open by mid-2019, with the crossing and the couple of miles south to Texas 71 coming online a year later.
Unlike the MoPac project, which even to the untrained eye seemed to start slowly (it did) and looked to be way behind schedule a year into construction (it was), the dirt has been visibly flying along U.S. 183 since Colorado River Constructors began the $582 million job in April 2016.
Drive the road, as I did last week, and you’ll see a nearly finished new overpass at Springdale Road, discernible new lanes etched into the dirt up and down the corridor, dozens of new pillars sunk into the river bottom for the maze of bridges to come, and massive V-shaped support columns effecting a sort of post-Druid Stonehenge near the airport.
Stuff is happening, in other words. East Austin drivers, who have already had to endure 18 months of construction-related traffic problems, have another 30 or so months to go. But, maybe only 30.
So how’s that MoPac thing working so far?
It’s early, first of all, especially for the southbound toll lane, which opened Oct. 28. MoPac Boulevard’s northbound toll lane was fully opened a month ago.
The toll lanes themselves are generally moving at high speed even at rush hour. But, considering that the toll price can and does increase to discourage too many people from entering the lanes and grinding them to a halt, free-flowing traffic in them was sort of the minimum expectation. It will be great for transit buses, for those with ample resources and for anyone with a genuine need on a given day to get several miles in a short time.
But what matters most, or at least to the most people each day, is the effect on the free lanes. So far, the results there are mixed.
Before the toll lane opened, northbound MoPac in the afternoon saw considerable congestion most days from the river to north of 45th Street. Now the slowdown appears to have moved north of Enfield Road most afternoons, mobility authority officials say. But the agency’s toll operations crew, who spend the day observing the road on multiple cameras and monitoring a menu of metrics from traffic sensors, admit that on MoPac north of U.S. 183 the situation might have worsened.
Their best guess at what is a complicated phenomenon: Drivers from the south are getting faster into what has already been a worsening traffic situation in the vicinity of the Domain, which has expanded to the degree that it creates its own mini-rush hour on MoPac. That’s why the toll on the north half has spiked to $4 or $5 several days.
Southbound, MoPac’s free lanes in the morning were something of a miracle last week, apart from Thursday, when Evil MoPac reasserted itself for a couple of hours amid fender benders near Enfield Road and Windsor Road. The other four days, morning rush-hour traffic was partying like it was 1989. When I drove the road about 8:30 a.m. each day, traffic in the free lanes was flowing at 60 mph most of the way, and my commute from near Anderson High to the Statesman went from 35 minutes down to about 20 minutes.
The afternoon rush southbound is more complicated, with slow-and-go on the free lanes from south of the river to well into North Austin — but maybe not as far north as before the toll lane opened. And of course, the situation is much worse on Enfield and Winsted Lane, as I reported last month because of a free lane change related to the toll lane’s opening.
The afternoon situation southbound might be too close, and too soon, to call.