The year is 1981. I’m interning at the Texas Capitol for WFAA-TV. As a UT student, I’m proudly driving my burnt orange,VW Bug. In my mind, the only highway in Austin is Interstate 35. My boss, the WFAA Bureau Chief, tells me to rush a book-sized, video tape to KVUE-TV on Steck Avenue so her story can make their 6 pm newscast. I innocently ask, “What’s Mopac?” I’d honestly never heard of it. Once I found this elusive Mopac, I sailed down the empty highway during rush hour with nary a car in sight. I must have made it to KVUE from the Capitol in about 10-minutes, or as fast as a 1969 stick shift Beetle could go.
Fast forward almost 40 years and my daily morning slog from my home in NW Austin to the 40 Acres (home of KLRU) takes about half an hour in bumper-to-bumper traffic on Mopac. My, how times have changed! Mopac is so synonymous with gridlock that the guy with the Twitter handle “Evil Mopac” has 14-thousand followers!
Back in the day, we used to say, “Pray for me, I drive 183.” Now, whether it’s I-35, Mopac or 183, you’ll need more than prayer...you’ll need plenty of patience when you hit the road. We are now the most congested city in Texas. Traffic is Austin’s Achilles heel.
We certainly didn’t get here overnight. We Texans are famous for shunning mass transit and preferring the comforts of our cars and trucks. Austin has twice rejected expanding light rail. While we passed a major mobility bond in 2016, that money is basically being used to play catch-up, improving roads and corridors.
Dockless bikes, ride-share companies and those, much maligned, scooters have rolled into town in recent years and are here to stay. In the blink of an eye, autonomous vehicles will be a reality. The Central Texas population is around 2-million and is projected to double by 2040. You can bet our road capacity won’t be doubling along with it. Considering 150 people are moving here everyday, it’s obvious something has to change.
Our Decibel team spent the month of May focusing on local transportation. I can tell you there’s no silver-bullet solution to Austin’s transportation issues, but I see some progress. Cap Metro and the City of Austin have both presented new plans to help Central Texas navigate transportation challenges in the future. It’s a start and long overdue. Check out Project Connect and Austin’s Strategic Mobility Plan
Let’s face it, Mopac will never again be the empty highway I first encountered in 1981. But, we can’t rely on road expansion as the only fix for our traffic tie-ups. Some of us, myself included, need to get out of our cars, from time to time, and get on board other ways to move around this wonderful place we call home.