Colorado team to help ease Austin traffic

Members of a Colorado think tank will soon set up a shop in Austin. They are coming to help develop new ideas on how to deal with the local traffic problem. The project was authorized Thursday night by the Austin City Council.

Monday through Friday, the cameras are always on at the Austin Transportation Management Center. From here, engineers battle morning and afternoon gridlock by adjusting traffic signals and posting informational alerts. But Jim Dale, the assistant transportation director, admits the technology on-hand can only do so much.

"There is not one silver bullet for it. We have to look at all the tools we have available to us,” Dale said.

With that in mind Thursday night, the Austin City Council finalized a deal with a Colorado think tank called the Rocky Mountain Institute. The group is expected to explore the use of new transportation options, such as: promoting smart phone traffic apps, encouraging the use of self-driving cars and ride sharing services, as well as expanding access to public transportation.

RMI selected Austin, and is not being paid for its work— although the city will provide the study team with office space. The goal is to create a new commuting mindset, according to Dale, and not to build new roads.

"There's technology strategies. There's strategies on how we can operate those roadways we have already better than what we are today, so those are the things we are looking at,” Dale said.

The concept of thinking outside of the box is also being applied to several of the construction projects that are underway as well as enforcement initiatives that have been launched. One example will be on the new MoPac tollway. Along with paying commuters, CapMetro buses will be able to use the lanes. The idea is similar to the dedicated bus lanes through downtown, which may be expanded to other major roadways.

CapMetro is about to start an assessment of the dedicated lane project. Some riders, like Aldo Martinez, say they have not noticed a major benefit.  

"My commute is pretty much the same, it’s been the same since I moved here,” said Martinez who explained his commute takes an hour and 45 minutes from the Triangle to Barton Creek Square.

For those still trapped behind the wheel, the commute is expected to get tougher. The Highway71 toll road project will not be finished for another year. Early next year, construction starts on the four-year Highway 183 project from Highway 290 to the Austin airport. Plans are also being drawn up for widening I-35 downtown and extending the MoPac toll lanes south.

"Some of those programs take longer but there are things were are doing today, just in basically in retiming our signals and looking at different strategies in that regard that will happen sooner,” said Dale.

The sooner will not include expanding a commuter rail. The latest plan for an urban rail line was rejected by voters. But traffic crack downs like Don’t Block the Box are expected to ramp up again. The transportation department has also been provided with $2 million to add additional employees in the TMC. That will allow the department to expand video monitoring into the weekends.

Another idea in the works is a process called Reversible Lanes which is being considered on the 1st Street Bridge. It works by shifting lane use during the rush hours. Under the plan being considered, in the morning a southbound lane could be used as a north bound left turn lane for commuters heading into town. Overhead signals with red X marks are typically used to warn oncoming traffic when the shift is on. The reversal lane idea may also be used on several other four-lane roads in Austin. In those cases, three lanes would be used for outbound traffic during the evening rush, and in the morning three lanes would be used for inbound traffic.