Mass Transit for Austin, By: Pinaki Ghosh

In recent months there has been quite a debate over the light rail in Austin. We are going to have a vote on a billion dollar bond for light rail. The issue has taken somewhat toxic turn where most city council candidates are keeping a safe distance from it and not supporting it. This seems to be hurting the “Mass Transit” or “Public Transportation” discussion as a whole. A handful of candidates who engineered this idea (aka proposition 1) do support it. There seems to be enormous external money used for campaigning in favor of this proposition – we do not know who is providing this funding but it must have its supporter to get such funding. If this fund is used to build the light rail then over the next 20 years each household in Austin will be forking out somewhere between six and seven thousand dollars to pay for it through property taxes. If the project is not finished on time or within budget then this total amount will go up. The current design of the light rail will serve the riverside corridor and some portions of downtown very well but people living in east side will hardly get any use out of it. (to-be honest folks living in west Austin will also hardly get any use out of it.). This does not mean we do not need Mass Transit Systems in Austin – we desperately need them.

When we design a Mass Transit System (not just “public transportation”) then we typically solve some of the most critical problems due to the nature of the capital expenditure. I do not think in anybody’s wildest imagination Riverside is the biggest challenge in Austin traffic problem. The north-south corridor of I-35, 183 and Mopac pose much more serious challenges. We have to look at I-35 as an opportunity instead of a problem because it connects the 3 of the 4 biggest cities in Texas and we happen to be in the middle. Dallas and San Antonio will have a stake in I-35 solution and we need to use that. We will be forced to spend money on the I-35 corridor but the good news is that we will have partners. 

We need to look at east and west Austin traffic issues more locally – we go to groceries, children’s museum, stores, gyms within our locality so we need local transportation. I will give a specific example here – Mueller has developed great facilities but everyone who come to Mueller, from outside of Mueller, to use these facilities use cars (unless they are on bicycles) so parking is already a problem – most of the people who go to the Mueller HEB or will go to the future movie or to the parks stay within 3 to 5 miles. It would be great if there are 2 or 3 local bus routes which take people to Mueller or Lamar Bus Depot from various locations within that 3 to 5 mile radius every 10 or 15 minutes. Today we have no such routes or options. Building these routes do not cost billion dollars and can be very targeted. Use of public transportation is a culture which needs to develop. Everybody will talk about pollution and environmental effects – well busses can run on CNG.

The other important point to understand that all public transportation does not need to be publicly funded all the time. The local buses can be private-public collaboration and owner operated by individuals of the locality instead of capital metro. The idea would be to provide public transportation, local employment and improved inter-neighborhood mobility. 

We already have a light rail and its utilization needs to be improved before we jump into another rail project and local transportation can help. It is also important to note that a bond is like a credit card debt except for the fact that it is collateralized against the city itself. We need to draw our lessons from Detroit – which during its hay days spend like a drunken sailor and today is bankrupt. Detroit was a bigger city than Austin and had larger industries so let us not take our sunny days as permanent and save some for the rainy days.