Airport Boulevard

Wild Art | 03.06.15

Roderick Landrum advertises tax refunds at the intersection of Airport Boulevard and 53rd Street on Thursday afternoon. Despite the cumbersome costume, Landrum performs his job enthusiastically.

Andy Nguyen | Daily Texan Staff

People walk through City Hall Thursday afternoon.

Griffin Smith | Daily Texan Staff

In 2000, there was a ballot proposition for a light rail line in Austin. If the measure had passed the vote, Austin would have a robust light rail system running from downtown all the way out to 183 along the Drag and North Lamar Boulevard. It was, and still is, the most heavily traveled bus corridor in Austin, at the time carrying the 1L, 1M, 101 and bits and pieces of other routes that happened to pass by UT and downtown. And with good reason: The corridor has the highest population density and job density of any in the city. If built, the line would carry 40,000 passengers each day and cost $300 million — numbers very similar to the successful Houston MetroRail, which happened to begin construction the following year. 

The 2000 vote in Austin, however, failed by a very thin margin — eight tenths of a percent. As a result, Capital Metro substituted the MetroRapid buses for the light rail, and built the completely separate Red Line commuter rail.

Fast forward to now — Project Connect, a partnership between the City of Austin, Cap Metro and other transit agencies, will be putting a questionable light rail plan to the vote in November. Phase One of the construction would consist of light rail starting at the Austin Convention Center downtown, running north along San Jacinto Boulevard and Trinity Street to pass by the east side of UT, then jogging over to Red River to the Hancock Center, crossing the existing Red Line with an expensive bridge or tunnel and following Airport Boulevard to the derelict Highland Mall.

This line would carry half the passengers per day that the 2000 proposal would. At a hefty price tag of $1.4 billion in taxpayer dollars, though, it’s not much more than a shiny, expensive version of the bus route 10, and it’s such an awful plan that even former Cap Metro transit planner Lyndon Henry is against it.

What happened? Why did Project Connect choose this route, instead of retrying the Guadalupe-Lamar route? While the 2000 vote failed, it still passed within the city limits of Austin, whose residents are the only ones voting on the bond initiative this time around. Has anything significantly changed about the city that makes this corridor better? 

 

Smooth Ride, or Bumpy Start?

 

Let’s look at some real-life examples of light rail systems around the country. The aforementioned Houston MetroRail was planned as an upgrade to the most heavily traveled bus corridor and designed to be a backbone to the transit network of the city. The initial segment followed a near-straight line from downtown Houston to an outlying park-and-ride near the former Astroworld amusement park, tying together popular destinations and job centers such as the Texas Medical Center, the Museum District, Rice University, and the Reliant Stadium complex. This was the north-south axis of job density across the center of Houston. In other words, light rail just made sense there. 

And it saw packed trains from Day One. By the end of 2004, the year the Houston MetroRail opened, it saw 33,000 boardings on a typical day. The line has since been extended on the opposite side of downtown, and two more lines are being built as I write. They plan on expanding the system even further to stitch together all the employment centers of the city as well as beefing up the bus system to serve all the Houstonians farther away from the rail system. For such a car-oriented city, Houston is doing a fantastic job of balancing out its modes of transportation.

But an equally car-oriented city, San Jose, has been struggling to make its light rail system work since its inception. In the late ‘80s, when everyone was scrambling to buy a Macintosh or a PC with Windows 3.0, the local governments of the booming Silicon Valley wanted to complement the growth with a light rail system. With the Santa Clara VTA’s bus network to build off of, they were taking a huge gamble. The plan they came up with was one linking the downtown of San Jose, some neighborhoods of single-family homes, and vast expanses of parking lot with small office buildings peppered throughout. They crossed their fingers, expecting the rail line to induce growth, with tightly-packed office buildings and homes replacing the scarcely populated parking lots, driveways and front yards. This was the only way the light rail system could score enough riders to keep it financially stable.

Today, the Santa Clara VTA Light Rail has failed to live up to its projections, carrying 30 percent fewer passengers at an operating cost 30 percent higher than the average light rail system in the United States. It costs taxpayers in the rest of the region $10 to subsidize every round trip, and less than 1 percent of the county’s residents even ride the trains regularly. It’s important to note: There is such a thing as bad light rail. 

How does this compare with the plan here in Austin? If the 2000 Guadalupe-Lamar plan had passed, our city would have a light rail system similar to the one in Houston. It would serve all the existing walking-oriented parts of the city, including Downtown, UT, the Drag and West Campus as well as some other areas that would be more conducive to walking if they were given a little push, like the Triangle and the area around Lamar and Airport Boulevard. Trains would have been packed from the day the line opened.

And all it takes to make a San-Jose-style light rail line is to move a good line a mile east. The Project Connect line still passes through Downtown and UT but eschews state office buildings to instead serve downtown parking garages and follows San Jacinto Boulevard, an incredibly inconvenient route for the cash-cow West Campus riders. North of the University, Red River is full of low-density residential areas, with vociferous neighborhood associations that will fight tooth and nail to prevent the neighborhood from getting denser. The closest this line gets to a dense business district is near the HEB at Hancock Center, which is still an island in the middle of an ocean of parking lots. We shouldn’t put rail where we think density may be at some point in the future — rail should go where density already is.

 

The Consequences of Building the Wrong Route

 

“Won’t it take another ten to fifteen years for another light rail proposal to be put to a vote? Austin needs rail now to fix congestion!”

This is an argument I’ve unfortunately heard quite a lot. Despite what any politician says, public transit doesn’t do anything to relieve car congestion — it simply provides an alternative to it. Consider New York City: Driving around Manhattan is hell, and will likely be that way for the foreseeable future. But fortunately, there’s a cheap, quick way of getting around that is immune to car congestion, and that is the New York Subway. You may end up on a crowded train with your face in someone’s armpit for a while, but at least you’ll get to where you’re going on time.

The only way to reduce car congestion is to make it less convenient to drive. But few people want more toll roads or a higher gas taxes — unpopular ideas. So, Austin will see congestion for as long as people drive cars.

As for the lengthy waiting period, it isn’t as lengthy as it seems. It happened to be 14 years between this light rail proposal and the previous, but the average turnaround time is about 3.8 years - and grassroots organizations like AURA are working to make it even shorter. We shouldn’t rush into a bad, expensive plan if it won’t take us that long to wait for a good one.

So what if this rail line isn’t perfect? Why should we let the perfect be the enemy of the good? As it turns out, this rail route can’t even be considered good — it’s worse than building nothing. CapMetro’s Red Line commuter rail is running at full capacity, but still needs a whopping $18 subsidy for every boarding, or in other words, CapMetro loses $18 every time someone rides the Red Line. The commuter buses it replaced only needed a $3 subsidy for every boarding. So what did CapMetro do to compensate for this hefty loss? They diverted money from serving the bus system, resulting in route removals (anyone remember the Cameron Road and Wickersham Lane shuttles?) service cuts and fare hikes (or as Cap Metro calls it, fare restructuring).

This rail is something Austin can’t afford to screw up. No matter what, this proposition will only make transit worse if it passes. The resulting reduction in bus service will only encourage us, and everyone around us, to drive more - the exact opposite effect of what a transit project should do.

If you feel that cutting more bus routes will help Austin grow and develop, go ahead and vote “yes” on Proposition 1.

At least Austin will get a shiny choo-choo.

Smalley is a computer science senior from Katy and a member of Austinites for Urban Rail Action.

The partially abandoned Highland Mall property will now be converted into grounds for a new Austin Community College campus starting later this month, as part of a larger city initiative to transform Airport Boulevard into a more pedestrian-friendly corridor.

A resolution by the Austin City Council directs the City Manager’s office to find possible financial solutions for funding the renovation of Airport Boulevard, which could include adding sidewalks, improving roads and adding more residential and commercial properties in the area. One of the possible financial solutions that the city will be exploring is tax increment financing, or a TIF. 

The Highland Mall property, which was purchased in August 2012 by ACC, will start converting the space March 27. The first phase will renovate the area previously used as a J.C. Penney on the north side of the mall. The rest of the mall will remain in business during this first phase, which is projected to be completed in spring 2014.

Jorge Rousselin, urban design project manager for the city, said the city is looking over various options for both what it plans to do on Airport Boulevard and how to fund these options. Various plans will be presented to the council in May. 

“The direction was to explore financing options or potentially a TIF in the area,” Rousselin said. “We’re working with stakeholders in the area to kind of get the sense of what would be the transformative projects that would be under various financial structures.”

ACC spokeswoman Alexis Patterson said the first phase of the new campus will include classrooms, a library, a student union and a top-notch “math emporium.” This emporium will be an open lab to help students who need a refresher in developmental math skills and will be the largest in the nation of its kind, Patterson said.

“The whole idea is to become the premier community college in the nation,” Patterson said. “It’s going to be an innovative facility, and we believe it will be a pride point for the city and the area.”

David Hagan, history and liberal arts honors senior, said he fully supported the conversion of Highland Mall into a higher education space. Hagan said while the addition of walkable sidewalks and the improvement of roads would be positive, he still enjoys Airport Boulevard as it is.

“I like Airport Boulevard,” he said. “As long as they don’t touch the Popeyes, I’m okay. I feel like Austin is sort of progressively moving toward pedestrian-orientated city, which I am definitely in favor of.”

Published on March 8, 2013 as "ACC ready to transform old mall into new campus". 

Max Smith waits for a bus with Rebecca Keply on Airport Boulevard Wednesday afternoon. An urban planning firm is in a 24 to 28 month planning process with area residents and business owners to make the street more pedestrian friendly.

Photo Credit: Ryan Edwards | Daily Texan Staff

Part of Airport Boulevard could become more friendly for pedestrians and businesses if a new proposal for the area comes to life.

An urban planning firm is in a 24 to 28 month planning process with area residents and business owners to develop zoning changes along Airport. The firm will present the final plan to the City Council, which will consider the recommendations for rezoning.

“They want to invigorate that stretch there, coming up with a more specific vision for the stakeholders. That vision is what informs the way that the code is written,” said Leah Bojo, a policy aide to city council member Chris Riley, who first proposed changes.

The process will invite community participation to create ideas for the future of the area. The new zoning is expected to encourage mixed-use and pedestrian-friendly development along the corridor, Bojo said.

The two-and-a-half-mile stretch between Lamar Boulevard and Interstate Highway 35 where the project is focused also runs alongside a Capital Metro rail line, and new growth in the area includes the purchase of parts of Highland Mall by Austin Community College.

Residents expressed a desire for a more walkable area with amenities and services along the corridor. By changing the way the area is zoned, the city hopes to open it up for new investments in the future, said Jorge Rousselin, urban design project manager with the city’s Planning and Development Review Department.

“The area is in transition. There is commercial development along the corridor,” Rousselin said.

Goals for the area include making the corridor more pedestrian-friendly, said Jayashree Narayana, project manager from Gateway Planning Group, the firm the city hired.

“Austin is in a good position to be able to encourage more investment closer into the city,” Narayana said. “The goal is to see how much redevelopment can happen that can prevent more sprawl.”

Justin Soechting, owner of The Grand, a bar and billiards hall on Airport Boulevard, said he is looking forward to the city updating infrastructure in the area.

Carol Huntsberger, owner of Quality Seafood Market and member of a citizen advisory board assembled by the firm, said some of the ideas envisioned for the area include a landscaped median in the road and pedestrian crossing areas near higher density development to facilitate foot traffic.

Area residents, business owners and the planning group will work on planning for the area during a four-day workshop in August, Huntsberger said.

“What’s exciting about this is that it’s not necessarily looking at all of the negatives but at what this area can become so that it becomes a really great area that people want to come to,” Huntsberger said.

Printed on 07/14/2011 as: City proposes to reinvigorate Airport Boulevard

News Briefly

Austin Police are investigating a shooting that left one woman injured near Martin Luther King Jr. and Airport boulevards early Sunday morning.

At approximately 1:08 a.m., police received a call about a shooting on the 2300 block of Airport Boulevard. Officers arrived on scene two minutes later and saw a female in her late 30s with a gunshot wound.

They transferred the woman to University Medical Center Brackenridge, where she is in critical condition, said Cpl. Wuthipong Tantaksinanukij, a police spokesman.

The suspect, a male, was last seen going northbound on Airport Boulevard and could have possibly entered a dark colored sport utility vehicle, police said. Police are still searching for the suspect, and have not released the names of either the suspect or the victim.