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Traffic tie-up: Austin’s rapid population growth causes major bumps in the road

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Austin Photo Set: News_John Egan_Austin Traffic_Aug 2012_traffic jam
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If you’ve crawled along in bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-35 or MoPac, you’re keenly aware of it: The popularity of the Austin area keeps growing.

The numbers tell the tale: From April 1, 2010, to July 1, 2011, the population of Austin rose 3.8 percent, according to new figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. Austin was the third fastest-growing big city during that period, with the latest headcount standing at 820,611. At No. 2 on the big-city list was Round Rock, whose population jumped 4.8 percent to 104,664.

Combined, Austin and Round Rock gained nearly 35,000 residents in the span of 15 months. That’s roughly 77 people each day. And that doesn’t take into account all of the other fast-growing communities in Central Texas.

People will continue to move to the Austin area. It’s not as if the region can erect a wall to keep “outsiders” out. Although a wall isn’t a viable option to cope with the area’s growth, improvement of the traffic infrastructure is. But is there some light at the end of the crowded tunnel? Yes, but right now it’s dim. Sizable traffic fixes will take years to accomplish.

Sadly, Austin is buckling under the weight of its own popularity. I-35, MoPac, U.S. Highway 290 and other packed roadways are stark proof. And the headaches of this popularity likely will get worse before they get better. Already, the Austin area’s traffic congestion ranks as the third worst of any urban area in the country, according to the Texas Transportation Institute.

In his State of the City address in 2011, Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell asked his audience “to imagine your normal morning or afternoon commute, but with 500,000 additional cars on the road. That is our future – unless we take action now to change it. Austin’s traffic problems are the direct result of our dramatic, ongoing population growth, and our dramatic, ongoing failure to invest in the systems and infrastructure we need to stay ahead of it.”

Some help is on the way. In a partnership between the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, $230 million is being earmarked for transportation improvements throughout the region. Plans call for $130 million of that pot of money to be allocated toward a $200 million project to improve MoPac, including construction of tolled express lanes on an 11-mile stretch from Cesar Chavez Street in downtown Austin to Parmer Lane in North Austin.

Hays County Commissioner Will Conley, chairman of CAMPO’s policy board, said: “Central Texas has some of the worst traffic in the country, and we desperately need more money to improve mobility in critical corridors like MoPac and Interstate 35.”

Design and construction work on the MoPac project is set to begin next year.

While officials should be applauded for fast-tracking the MoPac project, new roads won’t solve all of the region’s transportation problems. Public transportation also is critical.

Yes, the region has MetroRail, but that’s not enough. An urban rail system, with the first phase traveling between downtown and the Mueller development, has been proposed. Financing for the initial segment of the urban rail line – with an estimated price tag of at least $400 million – hasn’t been determined yet.

As design, construction and financing details are being worked out, the Austin area’s roads will only become more clogged.

From 2000 to 2010, the population of the five-county Austin area soared 37 percent to 1,716,289. State forecasters predict the region’s population will climb to 1,873,435 in 2013. That would be more than 157,000 new residents in only three years. Just think of how many more cars that would mean on I-35 and MoPac.

If that doesn’t make you cringe, consider this: State officials estimate the Austin area’s population will tilt toward the 2 million mark — 1,986,359, to be exact — in 2015. Folks, that’s a mere three years from now. By comparison, the population of the San Antonio metro area is closing in on 2.2 million.

Buckle your seat belts. This could be a bumpy ride.

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