Officials: Downtown construction result of necessary growing pains
As Austin continues changing and adapting to the influx of people who call the city home, downtown road construction has become one noticeable cost of that growth.
“To me, [growth]is the big issue in downtown,” said Rob Spillar, city of Austin transportation director. “That growth is a really good problem to have. It is economic growth, and all that activity is what’s driving the street and transportation issues.”
As if the cranes working amid the city’s skyline were not enough of an indicator of Austin’s development, Forbes Magazine on Feb. 14 ranked Austin as the fastest-growing city in America.
Austin Public Works Director Howard Lazarus said the city “has what it has” in terms of space for new streets or added lanes. Coupled with that limited space is Austin’s Great Streets Development Program, which provides financial assistance to private developers interested in creating streetscapes that go beyond city standards—often narrowing roadways as a result. The city’s goal is to help bolster all transportation methods to help people move through the city, Lazarus said.
“The goal is to improve circulation for all modes of transportation and improve the experience people have while they’re in downtown,” he said.
This is the type of development that city officials, stakeholders and the community insisted they wanted in the city, said Molly Alexander, associate director of the Downtown Austin Alliance, an organization that comprises downtown businesses and property owners who aim to promote the value and vitality of the area.
“Our city has continuously reinforced this aspect that we want to build a more dense, urban, sustainable community, and that means we’ll have to endure some frustration and pains along the way,” Alexander said.
Alexander said she is pleased with the city’s efforts to address infrastructure needs and how officials have stepped up to accommodate the city’s development.
“It’s remarkable that the city’s made so such progress,” she said. “I’ve been here 13 years. I think over the last six [years]—since the new city manager came on board and particularly with this wave of development—I have seen this real aspect of, ‘If we’re going to rebuild the city, we’re going to be committed to do so.'”
This type of commitment is a good thing for Austin, Alexander said, and brings with it further investment.
“There is an upside, long term, that says if the infrastructure is poor, why would I spend a lot of money redoing my building or preserving my building?” she said.
In the end, Alexander said, residents will be happy with the result of the city’s development and improvements.
“It’s exciting, it’s painful, but I think what happens, once it’s complete, you’ll have a whole new area of opportunities—new residences, new businesses and new access—I think that the short-term pain, at whatever level you experience it at, really has this great return over the next 30 years.”
The city of Austin has renewed its focus on repairing and maintaining downtown roads to help improve traffic flow. City officials are increasing their goal of street maintenance from 80 to 85 percent of the streets at a level of satisfactory or better, Lazarus said. About five years ago, the city found about 70 percent of the roads met that standard. Lazarus said streets downtown mirror the condition of the streets throughout the city.
The Public Works Department works on 10 percent of the road network every year, so in 10 years, all of the city’s roads will have had some sort of preventive maintenance, Lazarus said. According to the Public Works Department’s 2013 annual report, the department applied preventative maintenance treatments to more than 875 lane miles of streets. There are about 7,498 total lane miles in the city of Austin, according to the annual report.
“Really, some streets take more to maintain, but we have a pretty robust program for improving streets in the downtown and maintaining them as well,” Lazarus said.
In some ways, streets are a lot like people, Alexander said. As they age, she said, more things need to be fixed as they break or wear down.
“Things just wear out, and it’s just part of use and it’s part of loving a place and it’s part of being a good steward,” Alexander said.
But not all the construction happening to streets downtown is caused by the city, Lazarus said. Some lane closures stem from private development throughout the city’s core.
“All of that work is being done in concert, and it’s all being done for the economic benefit of the city,” Lazarus said.
Alexander said construction downtown, both public and private, has a real impact on pedestrians and businesses.
“In the midst of construction, there’s always grief,” Alexander said. “As good as any construction company wants to be in making sure businesses are not impacted, the visual impact to a pedestrian or end-user certainly is there. You may choose to walk across the street or drive to another location.”
In the end, Lazarus said, the goal is always to improve transportation and downtown as a whole.
“There are a lot of things that drive street work. Some of them are public projects, some of them are private,” Lazarus said. “But they all work in concert to improve circulation and provide a healthier and more economically robust downtown.”
Sixth Street improvement plans
One of Austin’s most iconic streets also could be seeing some changes. The city has plans to renovate and repair the nightlife district of downtown East Sixth Street between I-35 and Congress.
“Sixth Street has been for so many years our international brand,” Alexander said. “It is still on the minds of many people, not unlike what Bourbon Street is to New Orleans. It is what people know about us before they come.”
Lazarus said some problems with the street include the failing street pavement and sub-grade, uneven sidewalks, a small stormwater drain system and telecom lines that need upgraded.
Alexander said the street serves multiple functions throughout the day and thus has its own complex economy. One goal of the renovations is to make the street more amenable to other types of businesses such as retail.
Possible plans for the street call for turning Sixth Street into a festival street—meaning the removal of traditional sidewalks in place of 12-foot-wide sidewalks, a bike lane, two driving lanes and two parking lanes. One of the parking lanes could be open to traffic during peak hours. Because the road could be reconstructed without curbs and with retractable bollards, the whole street could be closed down for events, and better accommodate multiple configurations and uses.
The project could cost a total of $19 million, according to the city.
One of the biggest concerns about the renovations comes from the effect construction would have on businesses. An alternate plan put forward by the Pecan Street Merchants Association, a volunteer group of Sixth Street business owners, calls for 10-foot-wide sidewalks, two lanes of traffic and head-in, angled parking.
“It would be incredible to both contract and execute this project such that it’s on a block-by-block or even half-block by half-block basis so that it does minimize the impact to businesses,” said Tim League, owner and founder of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, which has a location downtown on East Sixth Street. “That can be very, very challenging.”
Over the next few months, Lazarus said he and his staff will present some preliminary plans to the city manager to make sure public works staff understand the full scope of the task and then go back to stakeholders.
Transit priority lanes
Capital Metro launched its bus-rapid transit service MetroRapid Jan. 26. To help the buses stay on schedule through downtown, the city created transit priority lanes, or TLPs, for the new service. The lanes run on Guadalupe and Lavaca streets from Cesar Chavez Street to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Spillar said Guadalupe and Lavaca were chosen for the lanes because they are major roads that pass through the core of downtown. Spillar said when other bus routes get moved to Lavaca and Guadalupe, there will be about 65 buses per hour traveling at peak hours.
“We don’t really have any other arterials that go all the way through, and for buses, that’s really important,” the city’s transportation director said.
Because the lanes are a new feature in the city, Spillar said he and his staff understand it will take time for the public to become acclimated to the new lanes.
For drivers navigating the TPLs, Spillar said to turn right, cars need to merge into the priority lane so the turn can be made safely. A vehicle is allowed to merge into the priority transit lane as soon as a driver enters the block in which he or she intends to turn.
Cyclists have somewhat similar rules for managing the lanes and buses. Spillar said there are two reasons for having a bike lane to the right of the buses. The city did not want parking activity to the right of the transit lane, and officials wanted to provide a safer place for bikes to travel.
At intersections where the bike lane does not go through, Spillar said cyclists should merge with the bus lane when. If a bus is stopped, cyclists should go around the left side of the bus, he said, to the front of the traffic line where there is a green box—a safety design that puts more space between cyclists and motorists. Cyclists can then move through the intersection faster, Spillar said.
For more information on the priority transit lanes and how they work, visit www.austintexas.gov/prioritylanes.