Texas Department of Transportation

Three different segments of Lamar Boulevard rank on the Texas Department of Transportation’s 2013 100 Congested Roadways list. City officials are tackling traffic by planning to connect the activity centers with public transit.

Photo Credit: Jonathan Garza | Daily Texan Staff

For hours every afternoon, cars stretch for miles on Austin’s major freeways and roads, stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic with little hope for relief. While city officials say they are taking a multifaceted approach to escaping the gridlock, researchers say Austin’s growing population will likely only worsen the commute unless significant action is taken.

Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau released new data showing Austin is the fastest growing large metropolitan area in the country. Austin’s traffic is ranked worse than New York’s, I-35 between Austin and San Antonio is considered one of the most dangerous roads in the country and some research predicts a future of three-hour commutes between downtown Austin and Round Rock.

With Austin’s low unemployment rate of 4.8 percent making the city an attractive place to live, the city’s population is only projected to keep rising. According to the city’s Planning and Development Review Department, Austin’s metropolitan area population will almost double by 2035. City demographer Ryan Robinson said commuters will need to be creative as the roads become more congested.

“Using an automobile, increasingly in central Austin, is going to become more and more difficult,” Robinson said. “There’s just no two ways around that.”

Eight roads in Travis County rank on the Texas Department of Transportation’s 2013 100 Congested Roadways list, with I-35 in Austin taking the number one spot. MoPac and the Capital of Texas Highway rank 27th and 64th, respectively. Three different segments of Lamar Boulevard also crack the top 100.

In August 2013, the Texas A&M Transportation Institute released a study on I-35 that showed the evening rush hour travel time from downtown Austin to Round Rock will be more than three hours by 2035. Even when the study took improvement plans into account, researchers still found a three-hour commute from the city to Round Rock.

“We’ve been characterized as the messengers of doom because what we show is not pretty,” said Ginger Goodin, a senior research engineer at the institute. “But what we did identify is that the region should be looking at a lot of different strategies.” 

The A&M study notes people will likely just stop moving to Austin before I-35 becomes unbearably congested, but Robinson said he believes people will change their commuting patterns rather than avoiding Austin entirely.

One way city officials say they are tackling traffic is with the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, which lays out Austin’s growth around activity centers. Under the plan, people live, work and shop in activity centers, reducing the need to commute. The city plans to connect the activity centers with public transit.

“It’s simply so much more affordable to serve a dense environment,” Robinson said. “What I mean by serve is everything from water, waste water, electricity, transit, police and fire protection.”

The A&M study accounted for the activity centers.

Michael Oden, associate architecture professor and head of the Graduate Program in Community and Regional Planning, said other cities are also embracing the concept of activity centers.

“The idea behind it is that as we grow and have more people, we try to organize them in more kinds of concentrated areas,” Oden said.

Robinson said the city will have to rely more on public transit as the population increases.

“We are going to have to take the multi-mobile approach,” Robinson said. “As we see an increase in population density downtown, that simply makes transit that much more viable.”

Robert Spillar, the city’s transportation director, said Austin is working to improve mobility into its central core and offer more travel options. Spillar said the city is improving the road network by connecting more streets and working with the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, or CAMPO, a government entity that every urban area with a population above 50,000 is federally required to have. 

The city is also working with Capital Metro and Lone Star Rail on Project Connect, a collaborative high capacity transit plan for the region. As a result of the project, commuters can now use the rapid bus transit service MetroRapid. Commuters will have express toll lanes on MoPac in 2015, and rail projects are also being planned.

“There’s no silver bullet here. There’s no single project that’s going to fix everything,” Spillar said. “So we need everything. For about 30 years, this community didn’t invest in major transportation infrastructure as a city, so it should be no surprise that we’re congested.”

Daniel Yang, GIS and modeling program manager at CAMPO, said it is too soon to tell if activity centers will be a viable solution.

“It’s still too early to close the book, to say the centers have been successful or yet to be successful,” Yang said. “It takes time to see the vision of the centers concept to be fulfilled.”

The city and the Texas Department of Transportation are in the early stages of planning the I-35 Capital Area Improvement Plan, according to TxDOT spokesman Chris Bishop. According to Bishop, ideas range from adding express lanes to burying the interstate underground through central Austin.

“I-35 is the backbone of our local transportation network,” Bishop said. “In some segments, we’ve got more than 200,000 vehicles today and that threatens the economic livelihood of the area.”

Spillar said improving I-35 will require years of planning and construction.

“I think we are actually moving toward a major investment in the I-35 corridor,” Spillar said. “The I-35 corridor is probably a 20-30 year development program. It’s not going to happen all it once. There’s no way that it can.”

Because of the city’s continued growth, Spillar said people will have to make a greater effort to plan how they get around Austin.

“People have not, in this region, made conscious decisions about how they travel because they haven’t had to,” Spiller said. “Those days are gone.”

A proposal by a University of Texas Alumni to reconstruct part of Interstate Highway 35 into an underground tunnel is gaining traction with the Texas Department of Transportation. 

The proposal hopes to make room for businesses looking to use the land above the tunnel and to end the divide that I-35 has had over East and West Austin for decades. 

The project was proposed by University of Texas school of Archictecture alumni Sinclair Black. Black proposed a “Cut-and-Cap” method to deal with the aging highway. The proposal would essentially bury part of I-35 underground and use the newly-available land as a pedestrian walkway and to lease out to businesses. If initiated, this project would free 30 acres of prime downtown real estate and would bring in an enourmous amount of tax revenue for the City. 

Along with allowing businesses to move in, pedestrians would be able to, for the first time in decades, have an easy walkable path from east to the heart of downtown Austin. The proposal calls for a “Grand Urban Boulevard”, one that would allow pedestrians a safe stroll over the underground highway. 

The organization pushing Black’s tunnel project is Reconnect Austin.  Hayden Walker, a project manager at Reconnect Austin, said the proposed project would end not just a physical barrier, but also a social and economic barrier as well. 

“Austin, like a lot of communities, has the highways placed right next to a minority and disadvantaged population,” Walker said. “If the proposed project is undertaken it might end the concrete barrier separating east from downtown Austin. 

The tunnel would take into account environmental issues as well, Walker said. 

“It is important to people who live right next to the noise and pollution because it blocks most of the noise in ways that walls never could,” Walker said. “When you have a cap, and a ventilation system, you have an opportunity to scrub the air and to remove the air before it leaves the tunnel.”

Two more lanes have also been requested to be built into the underground highway in order to ease the flow of traffic on I-35, and possibly erase I-35’s terrible traffic reputation.

Katelyn Christiansen, a psychology senior who drives I-35 daily, said she wants to see improvements. 

“I literally see accidents on 35 every day because too many people are driving home and they’re hot and tired,” Christiansen said. “It’s getting out of control and anything to address the issue is better than nothing.”

Ryan Rafols, a psychology sophemore who also uses I-35 often, said he believes while it may be costly, it is needed. 

“I think that the growing transportation needs of Austinites is enough reason to justify increasing our mass transit capabilities,” Rafols said. “It may be financially difficult to fund all of these projects but Austin needs it.”

- Additional reporting by Andrew Messamore

A patch of Bastard Cabbage surrounds a Bluebonnet alongside Mopac near the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. The Bastard Cabbage, an invasive species of weed from the Mediterranean, blocks out native Texas Wildflowers and may eventually cause Bluebonnets to vanish from many areas of Texas.

Photo Credit: Shea Carley | Daily Texan Staff

Beloved Texas bluebonnets and other wildflowers may be threatened this season by an appropriately named pest: bastard cabbage.

Bastard cabbage, an invasive weed that originated from the Mediterranean region, has taken over many areas typically covered by native wildflowers, said Dennis Markwardt, director of vegetation management for the Texas Department of Transportation.

While bastard cabbage has long been a problem in Texas, Markwardt said a combination of factors have made growth of the weed especially prevalent this year.

“There were perfect growing conditions for it this year,” he said. “With last year’s drought, we lost a tremendous amount of grass, and then we’ve had a wet and mild winter this year.”

The weed grows in the same areas that wildflowers typically blossom, which may mean fewer wildflowers as the weeds continue to spread, Markwardt said.

“It’s out there competing with our wildflowers,” he said. “And in most cases, it out-competes them.”

Markwardt said action has been taken in the past to control the weed, usually in the fall as the seeds germinate.

“In a lot of cases, we’ve gone in there and sprayed to control it,” he said. “But this year it was just too much and too widespread.”

While preventative measures will be undertaken in the fall, Markwardt said his department has engaged in spot mowing to clear out some of the weeds, which can grow up to four feet tall.

“It’s spread throughout the state; the worst has been from San Antonio up to Waco,” he said. “It’s very unsightly.”

Srimahitha Kaliki, secretary of Longhorn Gardeners and biomedical engineering graduate student, said the bastard cabbage weeds grow faster than wildflowers and take nutrients out of the soil, resulting in the deaths of other plants.

“These weeds are depleting the supply of nutrients and beating out the wildflowers,” she said. “If the native plants are dying, that’s obviously not a good thing.”

She said her club spends hours ripping the weeds out of the soil in order to deplete the garden of them and allow room for growth of other plants, including beneficial wildflowers, which improve the soil.

Damon Waitt, director of the Native Plant Information Network at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, said a strong season for bluebonnet growth also supports the growth of the destructive weeds.

“We had a good bluebonnet season, so it also helped the bastard cabbage,” he said. “It was kind of a mixed blessing.”

Herbicide treatments, a common and relatively inexpensive way to clear out the weeds, can also clear out the wildflowers, he said. The bastard cabbage blooms slightly earlier than the wildflowers, which may make it possible to clear out the weeds without harming the wildflowers, he said.

“There may be a short window of opportunity, and the highway department will be trying to take advantage of that,” he said.

Community response to the threatened wildflowers has been tremendous, reflecting an expected but genuine love of the state flower, Waitt said.

“It’s been great,” he said. “People are raring to go and do something about it. I think it really hit home for people because of the connection to the bluebonnets.”

Many community members have contacted the highway department offering to help, while others have shown interest in a bastard cabbage-pulling event, he said.

“We’ve been encouraging people to pull it and get rid of it if they come across it,” he said.

Despite its humorous name, Waitt said he feels the name encompasses the annoyance and danger of the bastard cabbage.

“I kind of think it’s a perfect name,” he said. “If it had a nice name, I don’t think people would be as worried about it.”

Jacki Camarillo, account assistant for ThinkStreet, passes out fans to people attending the Texas versus Texas Tech football game on Saturday morning. ThinkStreet ran the campaign against game day drinking and driving.

Photo Credit: Julia Bunch | Daily Texan Staff

About 6 percent of the 25,000 drunken driving accidents in Texas last year occurred the same day a Texas football team was playing, and the Texas Department of Transportation was on campus Saturday to discourage post-game DWIs.

The department positioned a truck outside Gate 25 of Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium on Saturday, which processes many student tickets, as part of a campaign to spread awareness of the dangers of drinking and driving on football game days. About 40 people stopped to take pictures at the truck, which featured a mock living room with six people watching a game and two cutouts of football players taking keys outside the truck.

The truck has been traveling to different locations in the state during the college and professional football seasons since last year. The campaign also includes radio and television advertisements.

Terry Pence, Texas Department of Transportation traffic safety director, said Texas leads the nation in the number of alcohol-related crashes and fatal accidents.

“A lot of times people get into situations when they’re tailgating or watching a game for multiple hours, and they’re not paying attention to the amount of alcohol that they’re consuming because they’re sitting there having a good time, visiting with friends and family,” Pence said.

Pence said people should plan ahead to have a designated driver if they want to drink. He also advised sober people to take keys from impaired friends and make sure they get home safely.

Samantha Traeger, student co-chair of ATX Rides, said the organization began offering free rides to and from downtown in fall 2010. Typically, 40 to 50 volunteers from four Christian ministries drive people from two West Campus pick-up locations two Fridays a month and take them home later from a stop downtown. They serve an average of 300 to 400 people each night. Traeger said the members are invested in the safety of campus, which drunken driving threatens.

“We never want to see our friends, our peers or classmates in a situation where they’ve experienced a major negative consequence from drunk driving,” Traeger said.

Traeger said sometimes people’s plans to have designated drivers can fall through, but ATX Rides can provide a backup.

“Many times, that is their plan, but as they go downtown, they lose their plan more and more,” Traeger said. “I just think it’s always good to have familiarity with pickup locations for other designated drivers.”

Houston Army recruiter Joe Batten said he didn’t think the campaign would actually stop anyone from drinking and driving.

“People who drink and drive are generally irresponsible anyway,” Batten said. “They’re not going to care about what this little thing says. They know what they’re doing is wrong anyway.”

Drivers on Interstate Highway 35 and Ben White Boulevard will face frontage roads and temporary ramps because of construction this weekend.

The Texas Department of Transportation will continue construction on the flyovers, or interchange overpasses, from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon. Drivers going southbound will have to take the access road at the Woodward Street exit starting at 10 p.m. Friday. Drivers heading north will have to take a temporary ramp built north of the U.S. Highway 290 and State Highway 71 exit beginning at about 1 a.m. Saturday.

“The project is adding four additional flyovers to the interchange and will help reduce traffic in the future,” said TxDOT spokesman John Hurt.

When completed, the project will connect I-35 and Ben White. The temporary ramps and frontage roads will have two lanes to help regulate the flow of traffic while under construction, Hurt said.

“We scheduled the construction on the weekends to get the least amount of traffic, as well as took other actions to keep traffic steady,” he said.

The department also needs to place steel beams over the interstate’s main lanes before the project is completely done. The project is expected to be finished this September, but Hurt said the department did not encounter many delays.

“We are ahead of schedule,” he said. “Sometimes a drought has a silver lining,” Hurt said.
All lanes are scheduled to open by Sunday afternoon.