Kyle Keahey

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.

Bill Spelman, city councilman and LBJ School of Public Affairs professor, provides input for the Project Connect: Central Corridor study during a meeting at Austin City hall. 

Photo Credit: Ethan Oblak | Daily Texan Staff

The project to create a public transportation system aimed at reducing traffic congestion has narrowed the modes of transportation being considered in Austin from 14 to two — bus rapid transit and urban rail — at a Project Connect advisory meeting Friday.

Project Connect, a collaboration between Capital Metro, Austin City Council and Lone Star Rail, aims to increase transportation connectivity within Austin and in Central Texas. The plan to reduce traffic congestion in and around central Austin, referred to as the Central Corridor, creates a high-capacity transit system with multiple modes of transportation. These transportation modes are meant to be faster with more frequent service and fewer stops.

According to Kyle Keahey, lead consultant for the project, urban rail has the potential to be used in different kinds of areas. 

“[Urban rail] is kind of like a streetcar and light rail mix,” Keahey said. “[It is] one vehicle that could be a streetcar in your inner city but when you get outside the city it operates more like a rapid transit.”

John-Michael Cortez, CapMetro community involvement manager, said the project’s goals include wait times of no longer than 10 to 15 minutes during peak periods. Also, Cortez said the targeted spacing between the stops will be half a mile to a mile, and average speed, including time spent at stops, will be approximately 20-30 miles per hour.

Bill Spelman, city council member and LBJ School of Public Affairs professor, said a major challenge is planning for both current and future ridership.

“We need a [transportation] system which makes sense in 2020 — maybe 2022 — when it actually opens,” Spelman said. “We also need a system that makes sense 50 years from now, and the best system for a 50-year time horizon is not necessarily the best system for right now.”

Spelman said an option he thinks will receive greater consideration from the project collaborators is an underground train that will extend to campus.

According to Spelman, the project is considering an option that would connect South and Central Austin using a train that would travel below Lady Bird Lake. Spelman said the train’s technology requires that the earliest the train could return to surface level is near Fourth Street. 

“UT would be particularly well-served if, at least, the downtown section of this train were underground,” Spelman said. 

Spelman said extending the length of the possible underground train route would avoid using an additional lane — which bus rapid transit requires — and minimize the chance of hitting pedestrians.

“I think it’s part of UT’s master plan to have more pedestrians on the east side of campus,” Spelman said. “It seems to me that what people are looking for is new capacity, and we can’t create new capacity on our roads.”

According to Keahey, after finalizing a plan with the city in May, the team will present a final plan to the council to vote on in June. If the plan is passed, a November bond election will determine funding sources for the project.

After delays in the planning process, Austin’s Urban Rail initiative is back on track with a new leader set on getting the project going at full steam.

The Urban Rail is a project that aims to connect areas around UT campus and downtown Austin by rail network as an addition to the current MetroRail Red Line. Last week, Capital Metro hired Kyle Keahey to lead the project, said Linda Watson, Capital Metro president and CEO. Watson said Keahey, who currently works for the planning and construction firm HNTB Corporation, has worked on projects similar to the Urban Rail for 30 years. Keahey intends to have an analysis of the work already completed on the rail done by May 1 in order to lay out a time line for future milestones in terms of planning and funding, Watson said.

According to the Urban Rail website, the first phase of the rail is projected to cost $550 million, half of which is expected to come from municipal bonds and half from federal sources.

“There’s still a lot of planning work that needs to be done,” Watson said. “What we have done just with the hiring of this position is just to kick-start the planning process to kick it up in high gear to move it to a point where there’s enough information to get it to the voters for a vote next year.”

The currently published rail alignment extends from the Mueller development through UT campus and downtown and reaches south to the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Watson said this alignment may change as a result of public input and alternative ideas being presented. 

In both 2010 and 2012, the Urban Rail was pulled from the bond packages by Mayor Lee Leffingwell because of uncertainty in plans for funding and management of the rail, according to a blog post written by Leffingwell in 2012.

Jared Wall, civil engineering graduate student and president of the UT chapter of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, said voter-granted funding for the rail could be substantial. Wall said the rail would be easy to sell to voters because it may solve congestion issues in the face of increased employment and population in the city.

Billy Fleming, community and regional planning graduate student, said implementing the rail with voter-approved funds makes sense but would require more effort on the part of rail proponents.

“We don’t bat an eye at asking the kind of money we’re asking for this with an overpass that moves a lot less people a lot less fast,” Fleming said. “In my opinion, this is kind of a no-brainer. Hopefully whatever kind of campaign there is in the future [for funding] does a better job of communicating that.”