transportation infrastructure

Photo Credit: Daulton Venglar | Daily Texan Staff

With Austin voters rejecting Proposition 1 on Tuesday, the city will have to look at new options in order to continue its efforts to improve Austin’s transportation infrastructure.

Prop. 1 proposed allocating $600 million in bond money toward a 9.5-mile urban rail line running from East Riverside to ACC-Highland, with three of the proposed stops located along the east side of the UT campus. The plan also required the city to acquire $400 million to complete road improvements. The bond proposal was defeated Tuesday with 57.2 percent of voters against the plan. 

One of the plan’s biggest supporters, Mayor Lee Leffingwell has repeatedly emphasized that the city had no backup plan to improve transportation infrastructure.

John Julitz, Capital Metro and Project Connect spokesman, said the city and CapMetro will continue working to improve traffic congestion but, in light of the urban rail plan failing, will have to step back to look at the situation.

“The mayor has said it — there’s no plan B right now because we felt it was the best plan,” Julitz said. “We need to look at it from a system perspective for what the next step is going to be.” 

According to Julitz, voters against the proposition may have not been able to consider the bond from a broader perspective. In January, the City Council will begin operating under the 10-ONE system, in which each council member will represent one of 10 geographic districts instead of being elected at-large. Julitz said presenting a rail plan like Prop. 1 would need to address each council member’s specific district. 

“The route that we proposed was the first phase of urban rail,” Julitz said. “Subsequent phases would have included extensions to Lamar, to Guadalupe [and] to the airport. Giving the makeup of the new council, they’re going to be focused on ‘What impact is this going to have on my district?’ We need to present some planning as to ‘Here is the full system plan. Here’s the cost. Here’s the phasing and how its going to help your neighborhood.’ Not just ‘Here’s the first line, and we’ll do some additional lines.’ If people were able to see the whole plan, it might provide a little more perspective.”

Mayoral candidate Steve Adler said moving quickly on another solution is crucial in containing Austin’s traffic congestion problem. While the thorough process for Prop. 1 was not an issue, he said, this time around, the City Council needs to step it up.

“Looking forward, we need to have a sense of urgency, so whatever process we go through moves more quickly than processes have moved in the past,” Adler said. “The problem with the plan that the voters had was they did not believe it would do enough to solve the traffic congestion and crisis for the price it had.”

Council member Kathie Tovo said she heard similar concerns from citizens, and the most frequent issues she heard fell into two categories.

“Certain people were supportive of high capacity transit but felt this route would not be as successful as other options,” Tovo said. “The other concern that I heard often was the cost — that right now, many people are facing rising taxes and feeling the burden of that and taking on another debt was more than they felt was appropriate right now.”

Despite advocating for an urban rail alignment on Guadalupe Street and Lamar Boulevard, Student Government endorsed Prop. 1 in October. Robert Svoboda, SG City Relations agency co-director, said while the plan was not perfect, it was a step in the right direction.

“What was presented was the best option at this moment in time,” Svoboda said. “The last time that it failed was in 2000, and the city of Austin had to wait for 14 more years for it to be voted on again. That gap in time is really costing the city in terms infrastructure.”

In six weeks, the Austin City Council will vote on a public rapid transit system plan to integrate with the existing transportation infrastructure in Austin and central Texas, but, first, the Project Connect team must complete its evaluation of ridership demand and cost models.

Project Connect is a collaboration between Capital Metro, the City of Austin, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, Lone Star Rail and other stakeholders. A project committee for the Central Austin area previously narrowed the modes of transportation down to two — urban rail and bus rapid transit, each with a dedicated guideway. The team will determine the best mode of transportation and how it will be delivered based on several factors, including ridership demand, cost and effect on area economic development.

Bill Spelman, city council member and LBJ School of Public Affairs professor, said he hopes the system will be able to accommodate increased future demand.

“One of the things that we’re hoping to have happen is that demand during peak hours will go up,” Spelman said. “Ten years hence, if the demand is there for five-minute frequencies [from 10-minute frequencies], is that something that we’ll be able to take into account?”

According to Kyle Keahey, HNTB Corp. vice president and lead consultant on the project, two lines will be built. A bridge, short tunnel or long tunnel will be built from East Riverside Drive, travel north across Lady Bird Lake and end at 17th Street. The team must also choose between two different routes for an additional line that will begin just north of Hancock Golf Course and run north just before U.S. 290.

Keahey said, when deciding between the two Hancock line alternatives, the team must weigh the benefit of allowing riders to transfer to the already-existent MetroRail Red Line.

“If we introduce other lines to the system and we interline, all of a sudden, we end up with the Dallas example … where everything is funneled through a single alignment,” Keahey said. “Those are issues that we are looking at not only in this project but also … as we move forward beyond just this first project,” Keahey said.

Because the project relies on receiving federal funds, Keahey said, the team must ensure that the proposed project meets Federal Transit Administration requirements, including cost-effectiveness criteria. Keahey said there are several aspects of ridership that must be considered, including people’s perceptions and willingness to ride each transportation mode.

“I think BRT [bus rapid transit] is starting to dispel some of [the] notion that, if you provide frequent, clean service, that you can be competitive, but still what we’re seeing in the literature and FTA’s experience is that, if people have to choose, they choose rail over a bus, typically,” Keahey said.

According to Scott Gross, Austin Urban Rail program manager, as the city expands the transportation system, the cost-effectiveness of urban rail and bus rapid transit may become very similar over time.

“Urban rail does become more cost-effective per seat,” Gross said.

Keahey said bus rapid transit would require less capital investment, including not having to build an operations and maintenance facility. Keahey also said buses can make sharper turns, which means the city may have more route options if it chooses to expand the system.

The team will make a formal recommendation on May 2, and, making any necessary alterations, the council will take a vote on the locally preferred alternative on June 13.