Taking a Look at the Neighborhoods That Will Be Changed the Most by Project Connect
Diving into the iterations of the public transit redesign
By Austin Sanders, Fri., June 3, 2022
Project Connect was pitched to voters in 2020 as a complete transformation of public transit in Austin. That doesn't come cheap; those voters needed to approve a permanent tax to fund $7.1 billion in "initial investment" on what, all told, was a $10 billion-plus big-bang plan to catch up with decades of failure to invest in transit, during which Austin became the fastest-growing metro area in the country.
But 17 months after 58% of voters approved that tax, the team designing the system overhaul had some bad news to share. That $7.1 billion price tag was now projected to exceed $10 billion just for the "initial investment." That's largely because everything in Austin – construction costs, labor costs, property acquisition – now costs about 30% more than it did when the City Council and Capital Metro Board of Directors endorsed the Project Connect system vision in March 2020, days before COVID-19 locked down the entire city.
It also reflects choices that need to be made as Project Connect moves from the 5% complete design that voters considered in November 2020 to the 30% complete stage that will be reached later this year. That milestone will be submitted for approval by Council and the Cap Metro board, as well as the board of the Austin Transit Partnership – the joint venture created by the city and transit authority to manage Project Connect build-out and the expenditure of that dedicated tax revenue.
At that point, the Project Connect team can begin working in earnest with the Federal Transit Administration to draw down federal funding to offset the cost of the project. Because the local match for that funding is not a finite amount of bond revenue but a tax set-aside that will last forever (and help fund operations once PC goes live), the sticker-shock of the escalating price tag can still be managed with the funds available; it may just take longer, or require more federal money than originally planned. (There is more federal funding available thanks to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the "bipartisan infrastructure law" that Congress managed to pass last year.)
Project Connect planners are beginning to work with a wide range of community stakeholders to figure out what trade-offs need to be made to get to the finish line. Updated cost estimates will be part of the 30% complete stage, allowing for a more informed community discussion. ATP's Peter Mullan, in charge of design, and Courtney Chavez, director of equity and inclusion, agree that designing an equitable transit system is their mandate and that the more expensive system now on offer is essential for achieving that equity.
"I can't view one station or one area over another without understanding the whole system and how they're going to interact with each other," Chavez told the Chronicle. "Each piece is so important that if we start to segment it out" – i.e., choose to invest in one place rather than another for cost reasons – "we're going to miss something really big." Chavez is studying the demographic data provided by people attending Project Connect workshops to understand who's being heard from and who still needs to be brought into the process; she aims to present preliminary findings at the ATP's June board meeting. Until then, the iterative design work continues. Below, we look at five of the more challenging design features in the system.
The Downtown/South Congress Tunnel
The Downtown/South Congress tunnel planned for Project Connect is both exciting and vexing. Only 11 other U.S. cities have subways, but lots of others with newer light-rail systems wish they had built them when they still could. Going underground solves the potentially deal-killing problem of chronic Downtown gridlock without taking away auto travel lanes and parking, sure to prompt a political battle that transit backers would likely lose. But the tunnel is also very expensive. In the original vision presented to voters in November 2020, it already accounted for $2 billion of the total "initial investment" package of $7.1 billion. Now, it's projected to cost an additional $2.1 billion in what's more like an $10 billion package.
Everything is more expensive now, like Austin real estate and construction wages and materials costs, but the tunnel has also been extended about 2.5 miles, south from Third Street, under the lake, and down South Congress as far as Live Oak Street. That is because of a state Capitol view corridor, which protects vistas of the beloved home of our unbeloved Texas state government. How does a train running down the middle of South Congress do that? The poles that will carry the overhead wire that powers the Orange Line will break the view corridor plane. (The up-and-down slopes of South Congress don't help here.) The city already had to rebuild the Waller Creek Tunnel intake at Waterloo Park for extending a few feet into the defined view corridor over it, at a projected cost of $5.6 million.
Peter Mullan, who at that time led Waterloo Greenway (which worked on the park design but not the intake), says that currently, Project Connect staff are "not doing any engineering work on a shorter tunnel," but that could change next year. Planners hope the 88th Texas Legislature in early 2023 can provide regulatory relief from the Capitol view corridors at least in this one case, but also have worked out a contingency plan. "We've been acting based on the feedback we've gotten on the plan that the voters approved," Mullan said. "So we've been trying to execute on that now and then, depending on where we end up in the future, we may have to go back and reevaluate."
The slopes of South Congress also make it challenging to design the tunnel, the entrances to what are now two planned south side underground stations, and the portal where it will emerge at street level near Live Oak. But SoCo is also a prime transit destination with heavy pedestrian traffic, and Mullan said, "The places that are most challenging are the places where transit can have the most impact."
The Blue Line Bridge
If the thought of an Austin subway excites you, wait until you emerge from that subway on a brand-new "signature" bridge crossing Lady Bird Lake between Trinity Street and the South Central Waterfront, near the old Statesman site. This is the Blue Line Bridge, which will carry trains to and from East Riverside and Austin-Bergstrom International Airport as they enter and leave the city center. (Some Blue Line trains will start and end Downtown; others will "interline" north along the Orange Line.) A lake crossing at Trinity, by whatever mode, has been a fantasy of Downtown stakeholders for nearly 40 years.
The Blue Line Bridge will also carry pedestrians and cyclists in some fashion; most recently, community voices have urged that it also accommodate Capital Metro bus service. That would improve Cap Metro frequency and coverage on bus routes serving East and Southeast Austin, thus meeting Project Connect's broad goal of creating equity in mobility. It would add about $60 million to the current $150 million estimate for the bridge.
That's small change compared to the South Congress tunnel, but the community is approaching the point where it will be asked to accept trade-offs in scope or sequencing (i.e., making it smaller or taking longer) to absorb the escalating costs. The Austin Transportation Department is also looking at extending transit priority lanes on Guadalupe and Lavaca streets across the Drake Bridge that connects that two-way pairing to South First Street, in conjunction with other planned work at that lake crossing.
ATD and Cap Metro are working together to "enhance bus operations" on the Drake bridge, ATD spokesperson Jack Flagler told us, to benefit the transit agency's local, express, and MetroRapid bus services in the area. "The preliminary design concept would include transit priority treatments over the bridge," Flagler continued, adding that "further engineering efforts and public involvement will take place this year." Construction of the Drake Bridge improvements could take place "during or after a planned intersection safety project at S. First and Barton Springs Road, which is anticipated to be complete in spring of 2023."
The call for buses on the Blue Line Bridge originated with equity advocates, but Chavez says that she doesn't think of an equitable system as emerging from specific design choices. "It's a given that I want more access," Chavez said; she's more focused on ensuring that bus and rail rates remain the same, and that Cap Metro's "underlying service network" remains accessible to "the communities that need that access" the most.
Peter Mullan adds that he and other Project Connect planners are taking a longer view when it comes to these design decisions. Austin may not need two sets of bus lanes crossing the lake today, but what about 20 years from now? "Will we wish we had a route for buses to cross the river at both locations?" Mullan said. Maybe the community and political leaders will decide that's worth spending $60 million on. Either way, Mullan identified decisions like these as critical to understanding the message voters sent in 2020 when they approved Prop A and the indefinite tax that came along with it: "Do it right."
Down on the Drag
In multiple ways, bringing the Orange and Blue lines through the Drag is the toughest challenge faced by Project Connect planners. Though the corridor that hinges UT to West Campus is already a rich multimodal hub, heavily trafficked by buses, pedestrians, cyclists, and automobiles, there is just not a lot of physical space on Guadalupe Street to work with due to the preexisting built environment (including the stations built for MetroRapid). So designing safe, fast, and efficient lines and stations is precise work, which is also why the Drag design has spawned the fiercest political battle of Project Connect's post-election existence.
Guadalupe between 27th and 29th streets (where it curves and shifts several blocks to the west) is expected to undergo heavy transformation to accommodate the rail lines while also trying to make room for cars. That includes plans to demolish about 12 businesses, including the Dirty Martin's burger joint, which has stood where Guadalupe meets Nueces Street since 1926. Just south of there, Dean Keeton (the former 26th Street) is to be extended one block west to San Antonio Street, knocking down buildings right next to legendary Austin dive bar and music venue Hole in the Wall. Project Connect planners anticipate needing to divert auto traffic to San Antonio Street through this stretch because there's not enough room on Guadalupe.
Is the pending demolition of Dirty Martin's part of the inevitable march of progress in the nation's fastest-growing metro area, or is it yet another example of Austin losing a piece of its unique character? Peter Mullan sees an enticing challenge: "Again, this area is a huge opportunity, because the Drag is punching below its weight right now," the architect told us. "It could be so much more than what it is right now."
Project Connect planners will present updated Drag designs at a community workshop planned for June 14. Mullan says the latest design reflects the iterative process that planners are using throughout Project Connect – present a design, take in community feedback, incorporate that feedback into an updated design. The June 14 workshop will also include traffic modeling to show how planned multimodal design changes to the Drag could impact automobile traffic.
Riverside and Pleasant Valley
Designing the Riverside Station transit hub at the intersection of East Riverside and Pleasant Valley has proven a great challenge for Project Connect engineers, primarily because of topographical difficulties. In its current form, the intersection is dominated by cars. The roadway on Riverside is wide, allowing for high-speed automobile traffic, which can make the experience of crossing the road on bike or on foot to hop on transit a daunting experience. (The ample right-of-way was assembled after Riverside was planned to be "upgraded" to an expressway about 60 years ago; that never happened.)
The intersection slopes in both directions, more so from south to north (along Pleasant Valley), presenting further challenges. Flat terrain is most suitable for transit facilities; traversing level ground puts less strain on transit vehicles, which in turn require less intensive maintenance, and it also makes transit more accessible to those with limited mobility, such as seniors and those living with disabilities.
But planners also hope for Riverside Station to be a true transit hub, serving the Blue Line, the new MetroRapid Pleasant Valley Line, and local bus routes; right now, two 15-minute MetroBus routes, two local routes, and three UT Shuttle routes go through the intersection, with several more within a few blocks. Ideally, transit riders will be provided a simple, clear way to move between each type of service. Transit planners know that requiring transfers or connecting services can discourage ridership, so Project Connect designers are trying to streamline the process as much as possible.
In September, Project Connect staff presented two design options for Riverside Station at a community design workshop focused on the intersection. The first option would require tunneling under Pleasant Valley to allow Blue Line light rail and riders to avoid the slope; a better option for auto traffic, but less accessible to transit riders because it would require use of an elevator, and cost about $50 million to build. The second option would require completely regrading the slope to construct a transit plaza for rail and buses, which would allow for smoother connections between service types, but likely less convenient for cars and could result in more cars crashing into pedestrians.
Based on the feedback staff got at the September meeting, designers presented a new, third option that's a hybrid of staff and community ideas at a workshop on May 18. Option three will require realignment of the eastbound portion of Riverside and regrading of the slope to construct a transit plaza. The benefit of this design is it will keep the rail at grade, which will allow for easier transfers to and from buses, and it will mostly keep existing traffic patterns in take. The hybrid plan is expected to cost about $20 million, so in between the "baseline" second option and more expensive first option.
Mullan pointed to the design process at Riverside Station as an example of community and staff working together to produce the best options for Project Connect. "The key right now is making sure that we are having the right conversations with the right people," Mullan said. "That sets ourselves up for success as the project continues to move forward, recognizing that there's a lot more work to do and a lot more opportunities for the community to get engaged and to have impact on design."
Crestview Station and North Lamar Transit Center
The capacity of the existing MetroRail Red Line, which began service in 2010, is limited to a fraction of the ridership expected to be carried by the Orange and Blue lines, but it connects the city's first true transit-oriented developments (TODs) – a preview of the Equitable TOD planning intended to create destinations and housing along Project Connect's corridors. One of these, at Crestview Station, is the only place outside Downtown where the Red, Orange, and Blue lines will meet; it's already home to both single- and multifamily housing and retail anchored by the Black Star Co-op brewpub.
That existing development, along with more planned at a city-owned lot on Ryan Drive that was also part of the old Huntsman chemical plant site, presents its own challenges and opportunities to Project Connect. The Red Line runs on preexisting freight rail tracks on its way to and from Leander, and the rules regulating its service are different from those that will govern the Orange and Blue lines. Currently, the Crestview Station area is also served by the 801 MetroRapid and three MetroBus routes.
Project Connect planners are also exploring the possibility of extending the planned Gold Line, which would serve the east side of Downtown and the UT campus (Dell Medical School, the stadium, and Moody Center) on its way up to Highland Station, one stop on the Red Line from Crestview. The extension would take the Gold Line to Crestview and then to the North Lamar Transit Center, which for now will be the northern terminus of the Orange and Blue lines; someday, they'll extend to Tech Ridge, which in the interim will be connected with "enhanced" MetroRapid service. Cap Metro estimates that Gold Line expansion could cost $3 million in up-front capital and about $2.5 million annually to operate the extended line.
Back at Crestview, the city is negotiating with 3423 Holdings, whose proposal it selected for redeveloping the tract at 6909 Ryan Dr. Those talks could last up to 15 months but will lead to a deal on community benefits like affordable housing, open space, and the best possible transit connectivity. The 3423 proposal for the 5.5-acre tract includes a transit plaza to serve the Orange, Blue, and Red lines. Planners hope to also connect proposed parks and a cultural center at the site to transit.
Because the Red and Orange/Blue lines aren't the same kind of rail lines, they can't cross each other at grade (in the Lamar/Airport intersection) or use the same station platform at Crestview. So either one goes up or one goes down, both of which designers are considering. The former would involve elevating the Orange/Blue lines above Crestview Station on a flyover siding connected at both ends to North Lamar; this is what's already in the Project Connect plan as presented to voters. The latter would build a new depressed (though not fully underground) Red Line station at Lamar and Airport, at a cost of $175 million to $225 million (not included in the PC scope presented to voters) and repurpose Crestview Station for the Orange and Blue lines.
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