NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Options For Austin's Transportation Needs

December 11, 2000

Voters in Austin, Texas, defeated a proposed light rail system by a razor-thin majority last month. Austin faces a very serious transportation problem as the area's population booms. Among the 60 largest urban areas in the U.S., Austin is the only one without an east-west freeway through the metropolitan area. To compound the problem, Austin has only one north-south freeway and does not have an outer loop.

  • Even at the present historic rate of roadway construction, traffic volume will exceed capacity by 64 percent in 2025.
  • The proposed light rail or electric trolley system would have reduced highway congestion less than 1 percent.
  • The lowest cost light rail line was $46 million per mile compared to the highest cost of a freeway lane, $40 million per mile.

Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) and Capital Metro are expected to bring back a rail proposal in another year. Experts say there are more cost effective alternatives to deal with Austin's transportation problems that should be considered, such as:

  • High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes that would reduce traffic congestion on adjacent lanes and would accommodate high-speed bus service.
  • Traffic signal synchronization for buses that would increase travel speeds at a low cost.
  • Redirecting Capital Metro's light rail funding to build Busway-HOT lanes and using the remaining savings over the light rail approach in combination with HOT-lane toll revenues, which would pay for more general-purpose traffic lanes.

The most cost effective approach is to build more roadways and emphasize expanding the person-carrying load of transportation corridors. From 1982 to 1997, Austin's population grew by 106 percent while lanes of roadway only increased 66 percent. These steps would place Austin traffic at 99 percent of road capacity rather than the projected 64 percent above capacity.

Source: Thomas A. Rubin and Wendell Cox, "Options Ignored, Opportunities Lost: An Analysis of Affordable Transportation Options for Austin," Perspectives on Texas Public Policy, October 13, 2000, Texas Public Policy Foundation, P.O. Box 40519, San Antonio, Texas 78229, (210) 614-0080.

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