The Big Three Bike Projects Still Spinning Their Wheels?
Austin still struggles with bicycle mobility
Will three bicycle mobility projects long on the Austin drawing board collectively come to pass? Capital Metro's Rails With Trails, the Lance Armstrong Bikeway, and the Pfluger Bridge extension project each have unique histories and timetables, and the latter two have posed a conundrum of varying opinions and uncertainties. But galvanized and determined local advocates hope these projects will become reality before they must turn their efforts from bicycle activism to elderly and geriatric causes.
"In a lot of ways, Austin is falling behind on bike and pedestrian projects," said Jeb Boyt, president of Austin Metro Trails and Greenways (www.austintrails.org), compared to, say, Dallas/Fort Worth's "break-away efforts to fund hike and bike initiatives." And longtime bicycle activist David Foster of Clean Water Action points out that the percentage of bicycle commuters in Austin, a puny 1%, has remained flat since 1990.
In Austin's defense, "I don't think it speaks to inefficiency, but to the complication of business areas in flux and heavy redevelopment," said Colly Kreidler, the city's bicycle program coordinator. "We're trying to be part of all of these projects." Together, the Big Three could effectively and safely link nearly all points of the city to Downtown and specifically to the Seaholm District, poised to become a major transportation hub breaking down barriers like major highways and rail crossings that have long stymied even the hardiest of bikers.
The biggest of the Big Three is the Rails With Trails project, a component of Capital Metro's All Systems Go! long-range transportation plan approved by voters in November. The transit authority has promised 32 miles of trails alongside its new commuter rail line and has vowed to accommodate bikes on all trains at all stations. "By getting bikes and trains working together, we're doing the whole country a favor," said Foster. Austin's Rails With Trails, one of more than 150 similar projects in the U.S., would allow bikers to avoid I-35 and U.S. 183 while connecting to existing on-street bike routes and creekside trails. "As an agency, we're trying to encourage as much multimodal transportation as possible," said Cap Metro's Sam Archer, adding that RWT will connect with the Lance Armstrong Bikeway on the Eastside.
The Bikeway, the brainchild of local cycling advocate Eric Anderson, is an ambitious east-west off-street bicycle connector, projected to make a near-straight shot across downtown. Its path to completion, however, has been anything but direct, more reminiscent of Pee-wee Herman than of the bikeway's namesake. "I don't know why the Lance Armstrong Bikeway, which has had funding for four years now, hasn't even started construction, now taking longer than SH 130," says Texas Bicycle Coalition director Robin Stallings.
According to Kreidler, the city has appointed a new project manager, and 60% of the planning is complete. He said the pace is finally picking up, with designs to coordinate the Bikeway's eastern alignment with the Saltillo District redevelopment (being managed by Cap Metro) and using Fourth Street as its downtown route. He attributes the Bikeway's slo-mo progress to those developmental uncertainties.
"When it's finished, I hope the Bikeway is good enough for people to ride it and say, 'Why not in my neighborhood?'" Anderson said. But he has misgivings about the Bikeway's current course: "It stays as far away as possible from where it needs to be," including the Market District centered around Sixth and Lamar and the Pfluger Bridge connecting Downtown to South Austin.
That bridge, of course, has remained armless and incomplete since it opened in 2001, dropping its northbound bicycle commuters well short of the envisioned Seaholm transit hub. In his column in the December issue of Southwest Cycling News, Anderson reports that "exciting potential partnering opportunities for the Pfluger Bridge Extension Project" would be presented later this month, "as a direct result of the City's ongoing discussions with developers of projects in the Seaholm District."
This may translate into an easement through the Lumberman's tract just east of Seaholm, currently under contract to Gables Residential Trust. Such an easement could solve the ongoing dilemma that has stymied bridge planners agreeing on one of the many possible alignments for the bridge extension. Greg Kiloh, the city's Pfluger extension project manager, notes that a path along this basic route has already been worn into the grass, connecting to Bowie Street and a potential Seaholm rail station, then north toward the Market District.