Wear: Medical school could tangle up Red River Street

Apparently, we voted last fall to mess up Red River Street.

At the time, the campaign on Central Health’s Proposition 1 was all about a property tax increase to help finance a University of Texas medical school, acquire a site for a new teaching hospital and improve health care for Austin’s less fortunate. And all of this was supposed to take place somewhere near the Erwin Center, which is on Red River.

But no one said anything, maybe because they didn’t know then, about one side effect: Under UT’s proposal unveiled last week, Red River — now a four-lane continuous road that offers a relatively quick way from downtown to points north of UT — would get a right-left dogleg at East 15th Street. And, based on UT’s artist rendering of the medical school plan, Red River also would be considerably thinner from East 15th to East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

UT officials last week couldn’t say how much thinner but said that keeping Red River a viable street is in UT’s and the medical school’s interest. But they also said making it appear skinny on their map was not an accident, because a new hospital envisioned as sitting beside the street would need as large a footprint as possible. Some of that land, under the initial plan, would come out of a rerouted Red River.

The inevitable result of this is that East 15th, and the four blocks of Red River to the north, would become a choke point for the thousands of people who depend on Red River to get around our increasingly congested city.

How many thousands? Hard to say. A city traffic count of Red River just south of East 15th, taken in 2005, showed 11,150 vehicles a day. Red River saw 12,750 vehicles a day in a 2010 count taken farther north at Manor Road. There are no other recent counts of Red River available.

The change could mean trouble for East 15th as well. That street is an east-west commuter corridor, and after the rejiggering of Red River, several thousand cars a day that would have merely crossed it instead would join the East 15th flow for a block while making that dogleg.

How bad would all this be? We don’t know yet. UT officials have begun talking to the city of Austin’s transportation department — it’s a city road and apparently even Big Orange can’t move a street willy-nilly — and a traffic impact study will be part of the process. The Austin City Council would get the final say on abandoning Red River’s current path.

City transportation officials, in seeking to justify a large city expenditure on an urban rail system, have talked about how the gateways into and out of downtown have become clogged. Passenger rail, they say, would be a way to break through that “ring of constraint.”

Red River is one of those gateways, one that is blissfully smooth and fast much of the time. Red River, as it happens, is parallel and only a block or two away from the proposed path of urban rail.

It’s not a huge leap to see that hamstringing Red River would provide yet another rhetorical point in that rail quest. “Red River a hassle? Have we got a deal for you!”

So the city government and UT may have a common interest here.

UT medical school spokesman Robert Cullick said that the dogleg might not be forever, that someday the current University Medical Center Brackenridge south of East 15th could be altered or demolished. Then Red River from East 12th Street to East 15th could be moved as well and relinked directly with its long-lost, north-of-East 15th self. We’ll see.

Pat Clubb, UT’s vice president for university operations, told me that once UT began to examine the geographic and logistical constraints of the medical campus area, moving Red River became inevitable. And that examination, she said, started after the election.

The parklike area west of Waller Creek is in a 100-year flood plain, not a spot to build a hospital, she said. So the first choice was to build it south of the Erwin Center in the arena’s surface parking lot area. But that would not have left enough room for load-out of the various shows that use the center, so that wouldn’t work.

Red River, therefore, had to move. You gotta break some eggs to make an omelet.

The omelet in this case would be all the doctors who will be trained at the facility, all the patients who will be treated, all the prestige this would bring to UT and all the lovely economic development dollars a UT medical school should bring to our fair city. The eggs would be you and me, behind the wheel.

Boiling eggs.

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