Opinion: Project Dis-Connect – Austin’s Back to the Future

Before burying the light rail below Austin’s unique street character and beautiful lake, we should take a breath to reconsider the design ideas and ballooning costs

Opinion: Project Dis-Connect – Austin’s Back to the Future

Today's Austin boasts a vibrant Downtown that draws residents and visitors to enjoy its lively street scene. But it wasn't always this way. Countless citizens and city leaders worked over decades to bring our Downtown back to life. That's what makes it so mystifying that Project Connect would have us pay double to bypass all this vibrancy with a subway.

Back in the late 1970s, city leaders were concerned about how desolate Austin's Downtown had become so they contracted with the American Cities Corporation (ACCorp), a national mall developer, to devise a solution. ACCorp proposed redeveloping a four-square-block area as an inwardly oriented mall. This scheme, which would have totally enclosed the four blocks between Congress, Lavaca, and First and Third streets, was intended to turn its back on what was then deemed the Downtown's negative street environment.

A group of citizens, along with a number of artists who had Downtown studio space, were horrified by this plan to abandon our Downtown streets, and convinced the City Council to send the proposal to all city boards and commissions for review and recommendations. The result was widespread disapproval and the enclosed mall plan was ultimately rejected.

Soon after, another group of concerned residents proposed the Congress Avenue Beautification Program to eliminate parking, widen sidewalks, and plant trees along the avenue. This plan was implemented, though it kept some head-in parking to serve the street's retail businesses. The resulting trees, benches, and other amenities are still enjoyed by residents and visitors today.

Years later the city embarked on the Great Streets Program to make additional Downtown streets more comfortable and amenable to pedestrians and shoppers. These efforts, too, have had a positive impact on the liveliness of Downtown streets.

Yet today, Project Connect planning has devolved into an extensive underground subway system that will take folks off the streets and build, at great cost, stations two levels below grade as well as additional "unpaid space" underground. This "unpaid space" – meaning any part of the underground area that you don't have to pay to access – makes sense as a place to put the pay kiosks to ride the rail, but these are much larger spaces than will be needed for that purpose. Some say getting people out of the heat will be a plus, but Austin is a beautiful Southern city with trees and awnings on most Downtown streets. Unlike Northern cities with subways, Austin is not snowed in for months at a time. It's also not clear whether the underground spaces will be air-conditioned; most in the north are not.

The subway plan raises serious questions about cost, quality of life, and enjoyment of our city. While the project is still in the planning stages, it would benefit us all to take a breath and vet this plan more widely before charging ahead with more underground engineering.

A few considerations:
What are the projected costs to maintain this vast underground system and where will this funding come from?
How safe will the underground be for evening riders?
Who will use the extensive tunnels and "unpaid" space?
Will flooding be an issue?
Will riders enjoy being in tunnels vs. enjoying the sights of Central Austin?
Will guns be allowed in the underground spaces, and if we act to ban them, will the state reverse our efforts?
How will extensive tunneling impact adjacent high-rises?
Where will the underground utilities be relocated?
And did I mention the subway plan at least doubles the overall price of the system?

It is not too late. I encourage Project Connect consultants, Austin's elected officials, and all concerned residents to reconsider the underground approach. The light rail line will run at grade elsewhere in the city – and yes, this may result in some challenges at some intersections, but these are being worked out elsewhere; there is no reason these same approaches cannot be used Downtown. An at-grade option may have other challenges, but we should be willing to meet these head on. We should look forward to viewing Lady Bird Lake from above – not zipping through a tunnel!

It's not too late to rethink Project Connect in a way that enhances our city and lets riders enjoy the attributes so many have worked to create. Let's seriously consider other options before moving forward with this hugely expensive underground plan.

Karen McGraw is an architect whose first office was in the Designer’s Space warehouse in Downtown. She was vice chairman of the Downtown Revitalization Task Force in the 1980s and more recently served on the Austin Planning Commission. Karen lives and works in Hyde Park – Austin’s first trolley subdivision.

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