Traffic in Madison is "absolutely getting worse," says Katie Austin, the doyenne of Madison driving. Austin is everywhere on area radio, with her updates on a half-dozen stations, including in Spanish on La Movida, and on News 3 This Morning.
More frequently, Austin is seeing complete gridlock during both commutes, something that used to happen only if there was a crash. When she started the traffic beat in 2003, "there would be 15 to 20 minutes where traffic would get congested on the Beltline around Todd Drive, between 7:15 and 7:45 a.m."
Now, she says, a fender-bender on the Beltline with one lane blocked will back traffic up 10 miles, all the way to the Interstate. "And then the Interstate will start backing up, and then you have cars going 65 miles an hour not expecting traffic to be stopped. And then there are crashes there."
In 2003, Austin reported simply by driving the roads. Now, she works either from her Midwest Family Broadcasting office or from her home in Mount Horeb. Her command post features two police scanners, three online scanner feeds and two computer screens. One screen shows the moving Department of Transportation traffic cams, while the other has "about 13 tabs open," including five sections of 511wi.gov traffic information plus five tabs of Google map traffic.
Austin also follows 200-some Twitter feeds, all for their likelihood of tweeting traffic information. She likes to confirm her info with at least two sources. "If someone's reporting a crash on Twitter, I want to see it slowing down on the cameras as well."
Fortunately, Austin has "one of those brains that absolutely loves having 20 different things going on at a time."
The worst traffic day not caused by weather? Austin cites an incident when Mineral Point Road closed for a fatal crash, "and no matter where you were on the west side, you weren't going anywhere." Then there was the day a kangaroo was found hopping down 18/151 near Dodgeville, and the blizzard of February 2008, when hundreds of cars were stranded on the Interstate.
Austin started her Twitter (@madisontraffic) just last December during a blizzard. "Honestly, I thought I would use Twitter only during critical weather events, but people just started following it," she says. Now she depends on it for "interactions with people who are out in it, telling me what's really happening."
The charm of Austin's traffic tweets comes from their good humor and imagination. Sometimes traffic snarls are reported in haiku: "Seminole Hwy/Excruciating delays/89 more days." Sometimes it's as if the road itself is messaging frustrated drivers: "Dear Commuters: I am so sorry for the 15 min delay from Stoughton Rd to Todd Dr for no reason other than too many cars on me. Love, WB Belt."
Austin has worked in radio since she was 17, inspired by her aunt and uncle (WPR's Joy Cardin and WISC-TV's Rob Starbuck). "I absolutely love it. I get paid to play on social media, to talk, and it's not boring ever."
How could it be, when she can tweet something like "RED CAPE THONG SCOOTER MAN: currently cruising outbound on Speedway Rd. Weeeeeeeeeee. 5:10pm."