Public Notice: We Have Seen the Future, and ...
Deconstructing Project Connect’s new vision for light rail
By Nick Barbaro, Fri., March 24, 2023
Austin Transit Partnership unveiled their long-awaited transit plan revision at an open house at Austin Central Library on Tuesday, and for those wondering what ATP's reaction was going be, after inflation and a degree of mission creep had put the ambitious original plan in peril – well, what's the opposite of, "Damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead"?
The Blue Line and Orange Line are gone; what we have now is a modest Brown Line, with optional add-ons, and some hard choices to be made. What ATP presented (and you can see the gist of it at their open house online) is a set of five options, all based around a core running from UT, down Guadalupe through Downtown, and across the river and out Riverside to at least Pleasant Valley. Only one of the five plans goes to the airport; only one plan goes further north than 38th Street; only one plan retains an underground component. Two of the plans include a South Congress spur. None of the plans, obviously, does all these things.
One ATP representative told me that they had worked through as many as 40 plans originally, and whittled them down to these five. There's no favorite among them at this point; ATP staff want to get input from the public, and from civic leaders, before moving ahead with one of these – or perhaps some combination of the features. We can afford to build any of the five plans, and all five satisfy the federal guidelines to qualify for funding, so it's a matter of priorities: How important is it to go to the airport? To hit the Convention Center? To retain the Downtown tunnel to avoid Downtown traffic? To meet up with the Red Line? Presumably if we can answer those questions, ATP and its partners at Cap Metro and the city can move ahead with a preferred alternative.
Yet I can't shake the feeling that there's also some wishful thinking going on: the hope that folks will look at this and decide we really do want to do more than one of these things – to have the South Congress spur and to hit the population centers north of UT and the airport, for instance – and that desire will shake loose the extra money from somewhere to make it happen. In that vein, one intriguing rumor floating around the room during the open house (well, okay, I was one of the people spreading it, but it didn't come from me) was the speculation that the airport was omitted from most of the plans in hopes that Bergstrom itself would step in to help pay for that last couple of miles, which will be mostly elevated as it crosses Ben White and 183. That's the kind of creative financing ATP likely needs to be looking for, because frankly, at this point any of these five plans on their own would be a disappointment.
Anyway, here's a look at some of the other sticking points/question marks.
• Crossing Lady Bird Lake: The tunneling option is gone, and all five plans envision one new bridge – either at Trinity near the Convention Center or at South First. Both the "partial underground" and "partial elevated" routes would have a raised bridge and elevated stations from Eighth Street to Auditorium Shores; the others would remain at street level – though that's one of the elements that seem like they could be traded out from one plan to another.
• South Congress: In two of the plans there's a spur line down South Congress as far as Oltorf. This would be fully above-ground; the tunnel plan is gone, because somehow the previous fears about the Capitol View Corridor have evaporated. ("The media kind of misrepresented that," I was told by one ATP representative.)
• Traversing the Drag: Four of the five plans (all but the "tunnel" option) would extend light rail through the UT Drag, at least to 29th Street. I was told that they haven't gotten any closer to deciding just how that would be accomplished – options are open for everything from a pedestrian plaza with only trains and bikes allowed, to a transit plaza with a bus line, to retaining auto traffic as well.
• The northern terminus: Continuing north on Guadalupe past the Drag, two of the options stop at 29th Street (presumably saving Dirty's), one stops at 38th (or maybe 45th), and one extends on up Lamar to Crestview Station and across 183 to the North Lamar Transit Plaza. Council Member Chito Vela, who's also on the Cap Metro Board, told me he's torn on this one, because while it "obviously" does the most for his district, he has concerns about crossing the Red Line at Crestview, where a bridge would be needed because the lines can't cross at grade, and crossing 183, which would require a right-of-way negotiation with Texas Dept. of Transportation that he thinks could be problematic.
Confused? Go look up the current state of the planning effort, and leave your feedback, at publicinput.com/lightrailopenhouse. And there’s a Capital Metro Board meeting this coming Monday, March 27, where we may get a better idea which way the winds are blowing.
ATP’s Five Proposed Options
All five of the options ATP presented are based around a core running from UT, down Guadalupe through Downtown, and across the river and out east on Riverside.
A) On Street: 38th to Oltorf to Yellow JacketMaybe the most middle-of-the-road option (pun intended), it touches on population centers north, south, and east, and could be extended to 45th Street and/or St. Edwards relatively easily.
B) On Street: North Lamar to Pleasant ValleyThis option gets the best scores on all six of the metrics that ATP presents, but it too comes at a cost, cutting off at Riverside and Pleasant Valley, while all other options go out past Montopolis.
C) On Street: 29th to Bergstrom AirportHaving a train to the airport seems like an obvious thing to do, but while this option is the longest, it appears to do poorly on the metrics, with a bottom score on "Land Use and Housing."
D) Partial Elevated: 29th to Oltorf to Yellow Jacket
Similar to Plan A, but with elevated lines and stations through Downtown, which is faster for the trains and helps traffic on the ground. But all those elevators, etc. are expensive, cutting off a crucial mile to the north as well as those possible extensions, dropping the numbers for both overall ridership and affordable households served.
E) Partial Underground: UT to Yellow JacketThis feels like it was just left in as a sop to the Downtown Austin Alliance, who would of course love the prospect of clearer streets and brand-new real estate in the form of an underground concourse. But that's expensive: This option is just 6.6 miles long in all, just two-thirds of what any of the street-level options would provide. Somehow, it switches from being underground to being elevated in the block between Seventh and Eighth streets; not sure how that works.
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