Austin mayor, others wary of cutting E. Riverside lanes from six to four

Early plans for how to squeeze rail onto East Riverside Drive have left even some of mass transit’s staunchest supporters cold.

That’s because to make way for urban rail tracks and stations, as well as for protected bike lanes and wide sidewalks, a city of Austin study recommends that Riverside be reduced from six lanes to four lanes between Interstate 35 and Texas 71. Traffic counts taken over the past few years showed 40,000 to 55,000 vehicles a day on that stretch of East Riverside.

The 277-page study also recommends that Riverside have parallel parking along each side, an unusual feature for the city’s major streets. And at Riverside’s intersection with South Pleasant Valley Road, a key north-south artery, the $600,000 study suggests eliminating the ability of motorists to drive through the intersection or to turn left.

The current intersection would be replaced with what amounts to a large, oval roundabout with an urban rail station in the middle of it. Motorists on Pleasant Valley would have to turn right on Riverside and make a U-turn through the median (and across the tracks) to continue on Pleasant Valley or make a left.

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who has been urban rail’s primary political champion since before he took office in 2009, hasn’t seen the study or been briefed on it as of Thursday but said he wasn’t on board with eliminating lanes.

“My first take on it is that I wouldn’t support anything that would reduce the number of lane-miles of Riverside, reduce the carrying capacity,” he said. “I think we have gone too far on that in other places.”

The altered state of Riverside, contingent on the public approving funding for urban rail and future City Council decisions, would be years away. But if it happens, the study by engineering company HDR Inc. says the project would have the effect of “transforming this corridor from a ‘through’ place to a ‘to’ place.”

The idea of eliminating a third of East Riverside’s capacity got poor reviews from many of those who, like Leffingwell, support urban rail.

“It would be a huge mistake to remove vehicular lanes on key transportation corridors,” said Tim Taylor, a real estate lawyer who serves on Leffingwell’s advisory committee for urban rail and supports adding transit options. The Project Connect staff working on urban rail will unveil critical details Friday about the proposed project at a meeting of that committee.

“We aren’t going to reduce the number of cars on the road,” Taylor said. “Especially in a place (like East Riverside) where we’re intentionally planning more growth.”

Alan Hughes, a city engineer who managed the corridor study, acknowledged that Riverside is a key piece of the transportation network in a city increasingly plagued by traffic congestion.

“It has to move traffic, and it will continue to move traffic,” Hughes said. “With the addition of the rail, that’s going to handle a lot of people. If it doesn’t happen, then we still have six lanes.”

The 3.4-mile-long stretch of Riverside has been the site of intense development of multifamily residences and single-family neighborhoods in recent years, and plans call for much more of those. But Hughes said with electric rail tracks down the middle of the street, 7- to 8-foot-wide bicycle tracks on each side (protected from traffic by low concrete medians) and 15-foot-wide sidewalks in each direction, enough travelers will choose those other options that the road will be able to handle an increasing load.

The report also points to the nearly complete work to extend the freeway portion of Texas 71 past its confluence with Riverside. The study’s authors say that the unobstructed, if circuitous, route from downtown to the airport will reduce the number of drivers who use Riverside to get to and from the airport.

Taking I-35 to Texas 71 to go to the airport, rather than taking Riverside to Texas 71 to reach the airport, adds 2.9 miles to the journey.

The report also suggests influencing people to choose ways of getting around other than cars through “marketing, education and advocacy.”

Hughes said the point is to get people to take the bus, work from home, or go to and from work at off-peak hours. “Not everyone is going to do that every day,” he said. “But if we can get people to do some of that, some of the time, it makes a huge difference.”

Why not have both six lanes and urban rail?

Hughes said it is a matter of available right of way. The city generally owns a swath of land 120 to 140 feet wide on East Riverside. With the various parking, biking and sidewalk additions the study contemplates, that leaves no room for two of the existing lanes.

The parallel parking “is conceptual only at this time,” city Transportation Department spokeswoman Sam Alexander said in an email. “On-street parallel parking is currently not allowed on high-speed arterial roadways.”

Susana Almanza, president of Southeast Austin’s Montopolis Neighborhood Association and a candidate for the City Council District 3 seat in this fall’s election, said the city, if nothing else, will need to rethink how wide to make the bike lanes and sidewalks.

“Four lanes,” she said, “is just not going to accommodate the traffic.”

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