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.


MOST RECENT

The Austin metropolitan statistical area surpasses COVID-19 pandemic job losses. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin regains all pandemic job loss, San Antonio nearly misses top 10 best performing metros in the country

The Austin and San Antonio metropolitan statistical areas continue their recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Photo of a plant store
Succulent Native opens new South Lamar shop and more South Austin business news

It is the second location for the local succulent and cactus purveyor.

Travis County sent a letter to TxDOT Sept. 21 asking it to explore more options for its I-35  design through downtown Austin. (Community Impact Staff)
Travis County says TxDOT I-35 proposals need ‘more work’ in letter to the state transportation agency

TxDOT said that taking down the highway’s upper decks from Airport Boulevard to Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard necessitates property displacements.

APD interim Chief Joseph Chacon was named as Austin's next police chief Sept. 22, pending City Council confirmation. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)
Chacon looks to police staffing, city violence, community relations following appointment as APD's next chief

Interim Police Chief Joseph Chacon, a 23-year APD veteran, was tapped to be the department's next chief pending City Council confirmation.

 Redistricting is one of the items on the Texas Legislature's third special session, and the state Senate released proposed maps on Sept. 18. (Ali Linan/Community Impact Newspaper)
Texas Senate releases proposed redistricting maps as special session begins

Redistricting is one of the items on the third special session, and the state Senate released proposed maps on Sept. 18.

Photo of the Travis County sign
Travis County approves fiscal year 2021-22 tax rate

The newly approved rate, paired with higher home appraisal rates, will result in an increase in taxes for many homeowners.

Photo of people attending ACL Fest
City of Austin approves ACL health and safety plan, holds off on final permit

Austin Public Health gave ACL the go-ahead to allow proof of vaccination in lieu of a negative COVID-19 test, but asked organizers to require masking in some areas.

Hundreds of complaints were logged against the Austin Police Department last year related to protests against police brutality and systemic racism. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)
Police oversight office challenges APD handling of most 2020 protest complaints

Austin's Office of Police Oversight objected to several aspects of the police department's approach to classifying and investigating protest-related grievances.

Q2 Stadium at night
Mixed-use development Verde Square to bring hotel, office space to site next to Q2 Stadium

Verde Square, a mixed-use development, is expected to break ground on construction by the end of 2022.

Photo of ACL Fest
Zilker Park closes in preparation for Austin City Limits Music Festival

Zilker Park closes in preparation for Austin City Limits Music Festival

Austin city staff and officials are pursuing additional protections related to mold issues in rental housing. (Courtesy city of Austin)
City pursuing improvements to handling of Austin renters' mold complaints

New recommendations from a report launched in the wake of Winter Storm Uri detail adjustments Austin could make to its mold response.