With unveiling of 'transformational' transit proposal, support for urban rail grows among Austin leaders

Commuters arrive at downtown Austin's lone light rail stop. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)
Commuters arrive at downtown Austin's lone light rail stop. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)

Commuters arrive at downtown Austin's lone light rail stop. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)

As plans for a long-awaited multibillion-dollar high-capacity transit system were debuted Jan. 14, the proposal, as expected, offered elected officials and the public a choice between a system driven by rapid bus infrastructure or one carried by urban rail.

High-capacity transit is a transit option that carries large amounts of people through the city with greater frequency than a typical bus schedule, according to experts. Generally, there is community consensus around the need for high-capacity transit in Austin; San Antonio is the only other city among the country’s 11 most populated without high-capacity transit options. Yet the choice between which vehicles should move people—buses or rail cars—has remained a point of regular debate. Numbers presented this week show a bus system costing $3.2 billion and a rail system costing up to $10.3 billion.

For some officials, the needle on that debate moved during Jan. 14’s public unveiling of the transit proposals, as transportation experts from the city and its transit authority, Capital Metro, said a high-capacity transit system focused on buses would become obsolete by 2040 due to a bus system’s limited ability to add cars and keep up with expected population growth.

“So [if we chose bus] billions would have been spent, and in 20 years we won’t even be able to use the system we built because we can’t fit more into it, that’s the problem with bus,” District 6 City Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said. “So, we’re talking about rail. And I find that kind of exhilarating but also nerve-wracking. That’s a big question.”

Flannigan went further. Within the rail proposal there is also a choice to build a 1.6-mile downtown tunnel that could connect the two rail lines. Capital Metro Program Director Dave Couch told officials yesterday the tunnel would yield greater capacity because it allows transit vehicles to avoid traffic and decrease its total travel time, which in turn allows the system to make more trips throughout the day.

Couch also pointed out that the downtown tunnel would also allow the transit system to circumvent the limits posed by the city’s condensed street grid. For surface-level rail, downtown’s street grid would only allow up to three rail cars per train—anything larger would block up intersections during rail stops and create further gridlock.

“We’re talking about rail in a tunnel,” Flannigan said. “That’s a subway. I mean, wow. That’s what real cities do. So ... we can go small and fail, because it will be full 10 years after [the system] is built, or, we can make the right investment for the future of our city. And that seems to be the choice that’s in front of us.”

Mayor Steve Adler said the way conversations were going a year ago, he imagined he would end up supporting a bus system because of the cost; however, he said he is no longer comfortable pursuing a major transit investment system focused on buses.

“It just makes sense that we shouldn’t be investing billions of dollars in something that we’re going to want to be retrofitting five years after we’ve completed it,” Adler said. “I know it’s more expensive to do rail. I think we need to spend the money so we’re not making a decision that’s good for the next couple decades, but one that’s good for the next couple generations.”

Capital Metro CEO Randy Clarke emphasized that a light rail with a downtown tunnel would strengthen the entire transit system. He said even if the light rail routes do not touch corridors such as Martin Luther King Jr. or South Lamar boulevards, service and frequency would increase for those bus services as a tunnel system would alleviate high-capacity transit’s effect on downtown and traffic for any bus routes that touch the area.

“We have to have the downtown core built correctly for multiple generations because it impacts everything around the network,” Clarke said.

District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen told Community Impact Newspaper she remains on the fence about the options but said during the meeting that the city needs to go big.

“It’s past time to transform the system; we have to do something big; we have to do something that works for the whole community,” Kitchen said.
By Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following two years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Su


A sign directs voters inside Ridgetop Elementary School in North Central Austin. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
11.8% of voters in Travis County have voted early since June 29, exceeding 2018 primary numbers

More than 97,000 Travis County residents have voted in person or by mail. The turnout far surpassed the combined early and Election Day totals in the 2018 primary run-off election.

A photo of the potential Tesla property
Travis County updates Tesla incentive package, pushing for $1 billion-plus investment from the company

Poised for a possible July 13 vote, Travis County has released a refined incentives structure proposal with electric carmaker Tesla.

Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath announced in a June 30 State Board of Education meeting that students will be taking the STAAR in the 2020-21 school year. (Courtesy Pixabay)
Education organizations call for STAAR requirements to be waived another year

Gov. Greg Abbott waived the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, testing requirements in March of earlier this year in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

With a clinical background in internal, pulmonary and critical care medicine, Corry has been with BCM for 20 years. He now focuses primarily on inflammatory lung diseases, such as asthma and smoking-related chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases. (Graphic by Ronald Winters/Community Impact Newspaper)
Q&A: Baylor College of Medicine's Dr. David Corry discusses immunity, vaccine production amid COVID-19 pandemic

Rapid development and distribution of a vaccine worldwide and successful achievement of herd immunity will be key players in determining the lifespan of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Dr. David Corry, a professor of Medicine in the Immunology, Allergy and Rheumatology Section at Baylor College of Medicine.

Origin Hotel, located in the Mueller development in East Austin, broke ground July 6. (Rendering courtesy The Thrash Group)
Origin Hotel breaks ground in Mueller development

The five-story, 120-room hotel will be located at the corner of McBee and Aldrich streets.

Austin Eastciders will be opening a new taproom and restaurant soon on Barton Springs Road. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin Eastciders prepares to open new taproom and restaurant on Barton Springs Road

The cidery has not given an opening date for its new location yet, but it has painted the space and put up new signs.

Gourdough's filed for bankruptcy June 23. The South Lamar brick-and-mortar location and its food truck both remain open. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
South Lamar donut spot Gourdough's files for bankruptcy

Court documents show that the owners of Gourdough's poured $1.79 million into a San Antonio location that opened in 2019.

The new partnership will provide on-site, same-day testing and results for assisted-living facility staff and their residents. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
State announces partnership for increased COVID-19 testing for patients, staff at assisted-living facilities, nursing homes

These test sites will help the state work toward the goal of processing up to 100,000 tests in the first month.

Steamies Dumplings and Sazan Ramen are both open in the Crescent development on Airport Boulevard. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
Next-door neighbors Steamies Dumplings, Sazan Ramen both open in the Crescent development

The two new restaurants are both open for dine-in as well as takeout.

The city of Austin has sent three samples of algae from Lady Bird Lake to The University of Texas to test them for toxins. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
University of Texas researchers will test Lady Bird Lake algae for harmful toxins

Last summer, five dogs died in Lady Bird Lake after coming into contact with the toxic blue-green algae.