Austin’s traffic problems hurt more than your commute

rbz Airport Grass Fire 06

The Austin Fire department responded to a grass fire in the 2700 block of Texas Highway 71 in Southeast Austin, just east of the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. The fire was contained to 1/2 acres and burned briefly on an old golf course at the site. Crews fill a brush truck from a nearby hydrant to continue battling the fire. RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

In theory, the Austin Fire Department should be able to respond to at least 90 percent of its calls in less than 8 minutes.

The reality, according to city statistics discussed this week during the city’s public safety commission meeting, only the firefighters in seven of the city’s 45 stations currently meet that standard.

That difference in response time can mean the difference in an accidental house fire resulting in the loss of a single room versus the entire home.

The commission on Monday forwarded a request to the City Council to identify the areas of need for new stations. The city already knows where at least four of those should be — they were identified as part of the process of the 2012 bond election. Six stations were recommended by city staff, but only one station  — Onion Creek — actually made it into the public safety proposal and it is yet to be built.

The problem is two-fold. The city’s explosive growth means there are more households to protect and the area’s incredibly frustrating traffic inevitably slows emergency reponsiveness. The fact that the areas around Loop 360 and in Travis County are high on the list of needed stations should come as no surprise to anyone who has sat in congestion on the major roads in the area. Both areas are home to lots of roof tops, with few road options for rapid emergency access.

The good news is that there are two stations in South Austin that are close to completion, which should relieve some of the fire response pressure in the Manchaca/Slaughter area, which has also been pinched by growth and traffic congestion.

The situation is one of the truths about city infrastructure, especially when it comes to transportation. There are lots of ways to pay for infrastructure projects. Public safety is just one of them. So the question is not whether Austin will pay for its transportation problems, it is rather, how high a price will be required.