Forbes recently named Austin America’s number 1 boomtown. In fact, 150 people move here every day. For those of you doing the math, that’s over 45,000 people a year. If you think traffic is bad now, after those folks move here, it’s only going to get worse. Without substantial transit investment, our region’s future and our quality of life will suffer dramatically.
The myth of Texans loving their cars is very quickly fading. Not only is Austin behind other large cities like New York, San Francisco, LA, Chicago, Portland, Atlanta, and Seattle when it comes to transit ridership, its lack of rail projects puts Austin behind even other Texan metro areas. Millennials are increasingly choosing to ditch cars and long commutes, preferring alternative transportation instead. If that’s not convincing enough, just wait; folks who prefer driving alone in their cars will soon find that current growth rates will not permit that luxury much longer, because road infrastructure can never actually meet demand.
This discussion around better transportation services in Austin isn’t a new one. In fact, Austin has been fighting for and against Urban Rail since the 80s. But with a traffic apolcalypse looming on the horizon, a new vote is expected in 2014–right before City Council becomes a potentially fragmented train wreck mandated by the 10-1 redistricting program.
Doesn’t the RedLine Service currently suck?
Rail is not just transportation. In fact, it’s often a powerful land development tool that can transform communities. While critics complain about rail’s inflexibility, think of the high cost associated with fixed guideway systems (such as streetcar or rail tracks) as a deposit that proves to developers that the city is making a permanent commitment to a particular corridor. As a result, land in the vicinity of the corridor is made highly attractive to private investment and, consequently, redevelops. This allows cities like Austin to foster higher density infill development where it is most attractive. We know where these areas are thanks to plans like the new Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, based largely on public input.
I know there is no shortage of critics here. Quick to make dismissive comments about the “uselessness” of our current Red Line, they claim it is pointless and serves very few people. While this is partially true, it’s an under-informed response. Yes, the current service is both too infrequent and too limited to serve a large percentage of commuters. However, it is important to realize what this new line was about.
The Red Line was constructed in many respects to “get a foot in the door” with rail, taking advantage of the low costs associated with sharing existing freight tracks. In addition to the low cost, this corridor runs through much of Austin’s low density, underutilized industrial areas that are prime areas for infill development. The creation of the Red Line is allowing mixed-use, higher density development to begin to transform areas like Plaza Saltillo, the MLK Station area, and Crestview already. Additionally, the Kramer Station is beginning to take shape as a gateway to The Domain, an area designed as a future secondary downtown for the City of Austin.
Once much of the pending redevelopment is complete, the Red Line will have a much greater number of residents and employees within five-minute walking radius of its stations. At that point, demand will be high enough to justify more frequent train service, and before you know it, the Red Line will connect Austinites to most of the city’s new urban districts.
But is it in the right place?
Many supporters of rail have been unimpressed with the City of Austin’s current preferred alternative to connect downtown with the University of Texas and Mueller Development. They argue that an alignment along Guadalupe and Lavaca Streets would attract higher ridership and serve a greater number of Austinites. This is certainly true today, but is it true tomorrow, once redevelopment is complete at the very large Mueller site?
To alleviate current congestion levels, Capital Metro, our transit provider, has planned MetroRapid. With two main lines planned as early as next year along the Lamar/Burnet and Congress/South Congress Corridors, these express buses will hopefully provide much needed higher frequency and higher speed travel along the city’s North-South axis.
Is this the right solution? There is no perfect answer, but it is worth mentioning that the coordinated planning of both Bus Rapid Transit and rail system routes in Austin will effectively provide high speed transit in the future to all corridors, regardless of mode of travel. But I’ll talk more about the benefits of MetroRapid and a BRT system in a future post.
No More Studies! Move Forward Already!
The City of Austin has studied the rail issue ad nauseum. There have been years of deliberation and discussion, beginning more than a decade ago. This year, city staff has been engaged in one of the most extensive and detailed ridership forecasting assessments that I have ever seen, in an effort to forecast future ridership potential of the current and potential future rail lines, and provide further justification of need and benefit when requesting funding from the Federal Transit Authority. Signs have, and continue, to point to the high land development and transportation benefits of the proposed alignment.
I strongly urge you all to trust that Austin has a thoughtful, long-term perspective on what needs to be accomplished, and the initial alignment fits within a connected framework for the city. With a successful UT-Mueller line, supplemented by two initial BRT lines, the city will have made major headway in Central Austin and be able to focus on additional development along East Riverside to Bergstrom International Airport.
This PDF shows the working group vision for the rail and bus rapid transit system for the Austin area including commuter rail to San Antonio and a MoPac-adjacent line to Round Rock and beyond. These are all critical pieces to providing our city and region with transportation options. Without strong and united support at this juncture for the first planned extension, there is little hope for future projects, and little hope that we will be able to absorb growth in a way that improves rather than detracts from our quality of life.
In my next post, I’ll break down CapMetro’s MetroRapid and the benefits of a BRT system.