Is a Central City urban rail line what Austin needs to improve mobility and reduce congestion? This fall, we will have a chance to debate that question as we prepare to decide whether to ask voters in November 2014 to approve funding for urban rail.
As you’ve sat waiting for the light to change at one of Austin’s increasingly congested intersections, you have undoubtedly thought that somebody ought to do something about all of this traffic.
Well, we have been doing something. Over the last two years, Mayor Lee Leffingwell, other elected officials and community leaders have engaged in discussions of how to increase high-capacity transportation in Central Texas by better linking activity centers throughout the region. Earlier this year, they adopted Project Connect as a regional vision to improve mobility throughout Central Texas by improving existing roadways and bus service and by adding additional rail service.
Under Project Connect, Interstate 35 and MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) would see improvements. Managed lanes are already under construction on North MoPac. These new toll lanes from Parmer Lane to the Lady Bird Lake will add capacity to MoPac and provide cars and buses with a quick and efficient route into downtown. Planning is also underway for managed lanes on South Mopac. A variety of improvements are planned for I-35, from improving ramps and intersections through downtown to adding managed lanes south of the lake.
Starting in January, Capital Metro will begin operating MetroRapid buses along North Lamar Boulevard and South Congress Avenue. The larger buses will offer faster service with signal prioritization and express boarding and more comfort with onboard wi-fi and real-time arrival information. You can already see MetroRapid stations constructed along much of the route. Later next year, MetroRapid service will expand to run along Burnet Road and South Lamar.
For rail, Project Connect has three recommendations. The first is to increase capacity and operating times on Capital Metro’s existing MetroRail Red Line. Capital Metro recently received a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation for part of this work. Second is the start of Lone Star Rail service along the existing Mopac/Union Pacific rail line connecting Austin north to Round Rock and Georgetown and south to San Marcos and San Antonio. Project Connect’s third recommendation is to construct an urban rail line in the Central City to improve mobility into and out of Central Austin to help address the in-town traffic issues and support commuting.
Over the last 10 years, we have discussed various options for a Central City urban rail line. One of the main routes discussed has been a connection from the Convention Center to the Capitol Complex to the new medical school through the University of Texas, up Red River Street to the Hancock Shopping Center, to a new Red Line station, and over to the Mueller development. This route is often referred to as the Mueller or eastern corridor. Another proposed route would run from the Convention Center up Guadalupe and Lamar to U.S. 183, connecting to the Red Line at Crestview. This route is known as the Lamar or western corridor.
There has also been discussion of a corridor along Riverside to the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. The Riverside corridor has received less discussion due to several factors: the additional cost and time required to design, permit and build a new bridge across the lake; the overall distance to the airport; and the limited destinations between the Austin Community College Riverside campus and the airport.
In our current discussions, the eastern corridor has several benefits over the western corridor. The eastern corridor connects many high-demand destinations, including the Convention Center, Capitol, medical school, UT, St. David’s Medical Center, the Concordia redevelopment, Hancock Shopping Center, a new station on the Red Line near East 45th Street, and the Mueller development. Mueller serves as both an origin of trips by its residents and a destination for those working at the Dell Children’s Medical Center, other sites on the 14-acre health campus and other work and shopping destinations in Mueller.
Second, the eastern corridor offers the greatest opportunity to reduce peak-hour car trips into downtown. The eastern corridor offers a better connection to the Red Line that will allow commuters to get on urban rail at 45th Street for a straight trip to UT, the medical school, and the Capitol Complex. The eastern corridor works well with MetroRapid, offering a third high-capacity transit option in the north central city. The new medical school and health center at 15th and Red River streets is planning for urban rail to bring workers and patients to its doors. Without it, the medical school would be adding far more cars to Austin’s roadways. The eastern corridor would also support the innovation district that Austin is promoting in the area around the medical school. Also, UT supports bringing urban rail through the center of its campus along San Jacinto Boulevard.
Third, the eastern corridor offers superior opportunities for expansion. The initial urban rail line could easily be extended in two ways. One extension could run north along Airport Boulevard adjacent to the existing Red Line to connect to the ACC Highland campus, county offices and hotels in the area. The second would be to continue up Berkman Drive to U.S. 290 and Reagan High School where it could connect to a park-and-ride facility and in the long run to a MetroRail line running out 290 to Manor and Elgin.
Fourth, taking urban rail to Mueller offers the chance to make Mueller even more dense. When fully built out, Mueller’s 700 acres will include some 13,000 people who live there, more than 1,600 of them in affordable homes, and another 13,000 to 15,000 who work there.
Finally, the eastern corridor offers more opportunities for dedicated lanes, in which rail would run apart from cars, than the western corridor.
There are also several problems with the western corridor. The first is that, running all of the way to 183, it is considerably longer and consequently considerably more expensive than the eastern corridor. Second, it would not connect to the new medical school, and it would offer a less direct connection to UT. Third, it would duplicate a central segment of rapid bus service, and MetroRapid would still need to run from Parmer Lane down Lamar and Guadalupe and on down South Congress to South Park Meadows. We will have to keep MetroRapid in place in order to offer a consistent level of service to people living along the corridor, particularly those living on North Lamar and South Congress beyond the ends of any western urban rail corridor. In addition, having both urban rail and MetroRapid running along Guadalupe south of 38th Street and past UT would only add to congestion in that area.
Finally, because the federal government has funded MetroRapid, it is less likely that it would fund urban rail in the same corridor anytime in the near future. And, they’d have a good point. Why should we double down on our transit investments in one corridor? North Lamar will be a great opportunity for a future urban rail line in 10 to 15 years, after the existing investment in MetroRapid has satisfied its minimum service life requirement.
It is anticipated that a recommendation on a preferred corridor for urban rail will go to the City Council in November. A series of public meetings was held from Sept. 25 to Oct. 2. Over the winter and spring, a plan will be developed to describe where urban rail will run, what streets it will be on, where the stations will be and how its construction and operations would be funded. That recommendation will then go back to council for a decision next summer on whether to ask the voters to approve urban rail as part of the November 2014 general election. There will be additional opportunities for public comment at each step along the way.
Whatever we decide to do, we need to do something. Austin’s traffic and congestion isn’t going to get better by itself. Project Connect offers us a way forward.
More information is available at connectcentraltexas.org
Jeb Boyt is chairman of the Alliance for Public Transportation. A local attorney, he previously served on the city advisory commission for the 2012 bond election. The views expressed in this article are his own and not those of the alliance.