As Austin has grown, so too have its traffic woes. While some road projects are taking shape, waiting for the time and funding it would take to add adequate road capacity doesn’t seem like a plausible solution. However, if voters give their approval this fall, there may be another option on the table.
Project Connect, a proposed high capacity, regional transit system, hopes to solve some of the region’s traffic problems. But is its proposed first phase, the Central Corridor, a realistic plan that will really combat traffic congestion? Some transit advocates worry that the proposed alignment has been rushed, and isn’t fiscally sustainable. Project Connect supporters say the 9.5-mile line will offer a reliable alternative to driving and will take thousands of cars off the roads, while also providing a backbone on which to expand regional transit.
Building ATX is excited to host two guest posts about Project Connect, with experts on both sides weighing in. This editorial comes from Charles Betts, executive director of the Downtown Austin Alliance.
1) There’s been a lot of debate among transit advocates concerning potential alignment for a Central Austin transit system. In a nutshell, can you talk about what’s currently proposed, and why you feel the proposed route is the strongest?
Austin, Texas is currently the fastest-growing metropolitan area in America, increasing in population by 110 people every day. And as a result of Austin’s dramatic ongoing growth, our traffic congestion has reached crisis level. Austin is currently ranked as the 4th most congested city in America and 11th worst in the world. A rush hour trip in Austin now takes over 40 percent longer than a trip during non-rush hour, and Austin drivers waste an estimated 40 hours per year stuck in traffic. In survey after survey, Austinites overwhelmingly agree that traffic congestion represents a grave threat to Austin’s economy, environment, safety, and overall quality of life.
Over the past 15 years, over $5 billion has been invested in building and improving roadways in the Austin area, but traffic congestion has continued to increase, demonstrating that roads alone are not going to solve our region’s congestion crisis. Today it’s clear that in order to address our traffic crisis and protect Austin’s quality of life, our community needs to invest in an integrated, multi-modal transportation system as envisioned by the City of Austin’s forthcoming Proposition 1.
Proposition 1 (Prop. 1) is the start of a mission to help save the city we love from being ravaged by its own growth. It includes $600 million for the first phase of an urban rail system – a 9.5-mile, double-tracked, high-frequency electric train with 16 stops along a route that connects East Riverside, downtown Austin, State Capitol complex, Medical School complex, University of Texas, Hancock Center, and ACC Highland. Importantly, the rail transit dollars approved in Prop. 1 would be matched by federal transportation funding.
Prop. 1 also includes $400 million for major road projects including missing flyovers at IH-35 and US-183; intersection rebuilds at IH-35 and Riverside, Oltorf, Stassney and William Cannon; direct connections from SH-71 to the airport; a new IH-35 Traffic Command Center to better manage traffic flow; and engineering studies for future road fixes on 360, 2222, Parmer Lane, and 620, and future rail expansion to the airport, Lamar / Guadalupe corridor, Mueller, Seaholm, and South and Southwest Austin.
Most of the public discussion about Prop. 1 so far has focused on the proposed urban rail investment and debate around the planned initial route. The route was recommended by Project Connect – a planning partnership between the City of Austin, Capital Metro, and Lone Star Rail – after an exhaustive analysis of several possible corridors. Key factors examined included current levels of congestion, current and future ridership potential, economic development potential, affordable housing impact, overall connectivity, and more. This work and recommendation was painstakingly vetted and ultimately supported by the Central Corridor Advisory Committee, a group of community leaders and volunteers assembled to review Project Connect’s work. Both Project Connect and the Central Corridor Advisory Committee also solicited and received extensive public input.
2) What information and questions do you hope to see discussed in the next months, as Project Connect progresses, from the city, the CCAG, and from Austin residents?
What most supporters of an initial rail alignment along Lamar almost always neglect to say is that tens of millions of dollars in federal transportation funding has already been committed to that corridor for rapid bus transit. This funding would almost certainly be revoked if we were to immediately pursue rail transit in the same corridor.
The benefits of the chosen initial route are clear and compelling. Current transit usage in the Riverside corridor was the highest of any corridor examined. Downtown Austin is rightfully included in the initial route, connecting to the State Capitol and University of Texas. The proposed route then serves an eastern corridor that extends from the new UT Medical School complex to the Highland Mall area, which is currently being transformed into a dynamic new college campus with 40-plus acres of existing mall parking lots also being developed into residential, retail, office, hotel, and park space. Bottom line: the proposed route will serve more than 46,000 people living within a half mile of the line, and 96,000 people working within the same area. Not only will this route be a success when it opens, it will only grow increasingly more successful over time as the population living within walking and biking distance of the route increases dramatically, as it inevitably will.
As noted, in addition to the proposed urban rail line, Prop. 1 will also likely include a number of major road projects that will also help address our traffic crisis. Several of the road projects will improve traffic flow at key points on IH-35, and prepare the highway for the eventual addition of express lanes similar to those being built on MoPac.
3) What do you think is most important for Austin residents to know about Project Connect, and about Austin’s transit future?
Over the next four months, Austin voters are clearly going to hear a lot about Proposition 1 from those who support and those who oppose it. As that important conversation happens, our basic maxim at the Downtown Austin Alliance will be this: Traffic congestion is not just an annoyance, it is a deadly serious problem that directly threatens our region’s quality of life in many different ways. To help fix our problem, it’s time to finally invest in a robust, citywide multi-modal transit system. Proposition 1 represents the first step in a new rail transit system plan that will eventually connect Austin’s suburbs and central city neighborhoods to downtown and the airport. Combined with major improvements to IH-35 and funds to plan and design future phases of both road and rail projects, Prop. 1 is the start of a mission to help save the city we love from being from being ravaged by its own growth, and the DAA urges your support for it.
What do you think of the light rail proposal set forth by Project Connect? Leave your comments below! Also, be sure to see another perspective, from AURA’s Jace Deloney, by clicking here.