transportation methods

City officials recommended Friday that Austin build a $1.38 billion urban rail system as part of Project Connect, a transportation project designed to reduce traffic congestion and improve transportation methods in Austin.

The rail would run from the Highland Park area through downtown and south to the East Riverside area. The study team recommended a bridge be built over Lady Bird Lake, instead of a tunnel running under it, which officials considered.

The 16 proposed rail stops include stops near UT's  Dell Medical School – which began construction in late April, and is set to begin accepting students in 2016 – as well as near the Capitol, Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium and the northern edge of campus.

Officials estimate between 16,000 and 20,000 people will ride the 9.5-mile rail every day. According to a press release from Project Connect, officials expect the U.S. government will contribute half of the project cost, matching local funding. In September, the federal government granted Austin $11.3 million for the transportation project.

On May 16, officials will outline a funding plan for the project, as well as phasing options for the project’s implementation.

Officials from Project Connect, a transportation project designed to reduce traffic congestion and improve transportation methods in Austin, defined and evaluated final alternative modes of transportation for the project and proposed 16 locations for stops — including three by the University — along urban rail or bus routes in an advisory meeting Friday.

The Central Corridor Advisory Group, which examines ways to increase transportation service and connectivity around central Austin, focused on defining certain parameters, such as number of stops and system alignments for both urban rail and bus rapid transit, which are the two modes of transportation being considered.

John-Michael Cortez, Capital Metro community involvement manager, said the committee surveyed groups around Austin whom the project would affect in order to determine the most beneficial places for route stops.

“We are making sure to reach out to diverse communities and get as many different perspectives as we possibly can,” Cortez said.

Scott Gross, program manager for Austin urban rail, said the routes would be broken up into three large sections — East Riverside, downtown to UT and Hancock to Highland — with five or six stops in each section.

“We identified a base set of 12 stations and then a broader set of 16 stations,” Gross said. “The evaluation we’ve done thus far points to more stops as better. The advantage is, by having fewer stops you have travel time savings, [but] those advantages are not enough to outweigh the greater access that having more stops provides.”

Proposed stops around the University include locations near Dean Keeton Street, Dell Medical School and Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. The latter would require the group to carefully consider how the routes would interact with student traffic on campus, said Steve Roth, technical services manager for the committee.

“San Jacinto is envisioned to become a transit corridor,” Roth said. “There are a couple of considerations that would need to happen related to crowd control and pedestrian activity, particularly on game day.”

Advisory group member Martha Smiley said the stop at Dell Medical School would play a crucial role in ensuring students could access campus easily.

“That’s where the engineering and science area of the campus is,” Smiley said. “It’s critical to make that connection.”

The committee also evaluated options to connect South and Central Austin by crossing Lady Bird Lake, which they have discussed in previous meetings. Mayor Lee Leffingwell said he favored a tunnel that would go under the lake, even though it would cost more than the first option, a bridge over the lake.

“Building the tunnel eliminates many above-ground problems we would face, such as slope grade and pedestrian traffic,” Leffingwell said. “Twenty years into the future, we don’t want to say, ‘We should have done this years ago.’”

According to Kyle Keahey, lead consultant for the project, the committee will continue to finalize station locations and lake crossing options for their next meeting on April 11, with a final evaluation of the project presented in May and a council vote for funding in June.

As traffic congestion increases in Austin, Austinites for Urban Rail Action met Thursday to discuss alternative transportation methods in Central Texas — including a potential light rail system called Urban Rail.

Representatives of the group spoke at the meeting about the future of Urban Rail, a system that has been effective in many major cities in the nation, and how it could be implemented in Austin. This is partly in response to Austin’s rapidly growing population. According to the Austin Chamber of Commerce, 7 percent of Austin’s residents in 2011 lived elsewhere in 2010.

Urban Rail is a light rail system which is imbedded in the streets and runs alongside existing streets and highways. According to the Urban Rail website, Urban Rail railcars take up the same space as six Jeeps lined up front to back but hold 165 people, providing a cost, energy and space efficient alternative to being stuck in traffic.

Phase One of the Urban Rail project is estimated to cost roughly $275 million locally, with matching federal funds contributed for a total of $550 million. 

The changes in Austin transportation are spearheaded by a nonpartisan initiative called Project Connect, a partner of Capital Metro, LStar, Campo and the city of Austin. Kyle Keahey, one of the Urban Rail initiative leaders from Project Connect, spoke at Thursday’s meeting. Keahey said that his goal is to keep the people of Austin informed on the data and details of the Urban Rail project, using Austinites for Urban Rail Action as one of his outlets for disseminating information.

Jace Deloney, founder of the group, said the organization’s goal is to increase transparency in the transportation changes coming to Austin.

“We’re trying to make this process as open, transparent and data-driven as possible,” Deloney said.  

Austin citizen Mike Gorse said he felt confident that increased transparency is necessary to generate support.

“I think if people feel informed, then [the legislation will] be more likely to pass. It seems like something that the public will want,” Gorse said.

Andrew Houston, an architecture and urban studies senior, said he has high hopes for Urban Rail.  

“My hope is that Urban Rail will become a part of Austin in the near future,” Houston said.

Julio Gonzalez, a member of the Austinites for Urban Rail Action executive committee,  said he feels optimistic about the future of the Urban Rail process.

“Hopefully, the data will help us get together, and it sounds like the time is now,” Gonzalez said. “It’s up to you to help make this process a success.”