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Traffic may be bad, but Austin increasing other ways to get around town

Ben Wear
bwear@statesman.com

Newcomers to Austin, particularly those from mega urban centers like Los Angeles, New York and Houston, might be surprised to know that Austin has the third worst traffic in the United States.

Or at least that's according to one measure from the Texas Transportation Institute's most recent urban mobility report.

Austinites who have visited or lived in those other places might dispute that high ranking. Still congestion is high on major north-south highways like Interstate 35, MoPac Boulevard and U.S. 183 during the afternoon rush hour.

It's not a new situation. Policymakers have spent a decade and a good deal of money diversifying the Central Texas transportation system.

In late 2006, the metro area entered the toll road era when three suburban turnpikes (Texas 130, Texas 45 North and Loop 1) opened up. In 2007, 183-A opened in Cedar Park, and in 2009 Texas 45 Southeast opened. Two more are under construction and at least four more are planned.

Frequent drivers might consider getting a TxTag, an electronic toll tag offered by the Texas Department of Transportation. The cardlike device (which you put on your windshield) is free, but you'll need to put at least $20 into an account that is debited when you drive under toll readers.

The tags work on all Texas tollways. Call 888-468-9824 to get one.

Then there's rail.

Central Texas, which hadn't had any passenger rail (other than Amtrak cross-country service) since 1940, got back on the train in March 2010. The Capital Metro transit authority opened what is called MetroRail and, sometimes, the Red Line.

MetroRail is a 32-mile commuter line between downtown Austin and Leander, a far northwest suburb. It cost, depending on who's doing the counting, between $120 million and $200 million to build.

The trains, with seats for slightly more than 100 people, run about every 35 minutes during peak commuting periods and once an hour during midday hours. They don't run in the evenings or on weekends, although that could change in the next year or so.

Figures for June 2011 showed light ridership, with just under 1,800 boardings a day, meaning fewer than 1,000 people on average are taking round-trips on any given day.

Despite that, the City of Austin also is considering a proposed $1.3 billion, 16.5-mile light rail or streetcar system that would run through Central Austin and out to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. An election to authorize funding for such a system probably wouldn't occur until late 2012.

Austin also embraces alternate forms of transportation such as the foot and, especially, the bicycle. Austin has an extensive network of off-street trails and on-street bike lanes, a system that the city transportation department is working to expand.

If you have a bicycle, some experience, some courage and a tolerance for the heat, Austin, home of Lance Armstrong and his Mellow Johnny bike shop, increasingly is a city you'll be able to get around in on the cheap.

bwear@statesman.com, 445-3698