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Corridor plans pushing forward with bus pullouts

Friday, July 29, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

A prominent selling point in Mayor Steve Adler’s pitch for a $720 million mobility bond has drawn a lukewarm reception by the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

On multiple occasions, Adler has hyped bus pullouts as a key feature of his so-called Go Big Corridor Plan, a package that would spend hundreds of millions on regional highways, bike and pedestrian infrastructure, and seven major corridors.

The bus pullouts would create a safe harbor along busy corridors for buses to wheel out of traffic in order to load and unload passengers. In May, Adler told the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, “When the bus stops, it gets out of your way, and you keep going.”

While pullout lanes might resonate with the chamber, they are being received with less enthusiasm at Capital Metro.

“In and of themselves, the pullout lanes aren’t really what we want,” Vice President of Strategic Planning and Development Todd Hemingson told the Austin Monitor on Tuesday. “If we pull out on a busy corridor and don’t have a signal protection to get back into the flow of traffic, then it’s a significant negative in that it actually slows down the service.”

That signal protection – likely in the form of queue jumps similar to those that have been installed in downtown Austin, for example – could provide a measure of relief, but some buses may still have to sit idle for an entire light cycle in order to take advantage. Nonetheless, Hemingson said pullouts with adequate signal protection would be an “acceptable compromise.”

It remains unclear exactly how the queue jumps and pullout lanes would be deployed. Of the seven corridor plans that could be funded by the mayor’s bond, only three – Airport Boulevard, Burnet Road/North Lamar Boulevard and South Lamar Boulevard – mention pullouts as potential recommendations, and each appears to give priority to placing them on the far side of intersections beyond the stoplights.

The National Association of City Transportation Officials, of which the city of Austin is an affiliate member, considers far-side placements the preferred configuration for pullouts. However, NACTO’s latest Transit Street Design Guide notes that “Buses may be significantly delayed in re-entering the travel lane on high volume streets. On routes where buses have difficulty merging back into traffic, buses often pull out of the travel lane only partially to avoid being blocked.”

The guide identifies one alternative to the pullouts as a better deal for bus passengers. “In-lane stops at the far side of an intersection confer the highest priority to transit operations at most signalized intersections,” it says.

Approved by City Council in June, the resolution that directed City Manager Marc Ott to work on the details of the bond proposal also identified NACTO’s design standards as a metric to which the design and implementation of the corridor plans must conform. Although the pullouts are given shorter shrift, they’re still considered viable, Adler’s spokesman Jason Stanford told the Monitor on Thursday.

“They do have standards for bus pullouts, which means they are a tool in the toolbox there,” said Stanford. “They’re not saying don’t do them. They’re saying do them when it makes sense. And that’s what we’re saying.”

Austin Transportation Department officials said that details within the corridor plans are subject to change. Eric Bollich, managing engineer of the Traffic Engineering Division, said that factors that may not have been considered during the assembly of each plan could come into play during the design stage. “So, like any other tool we use, we always try to evaluate the context at the time to see what’s the best use of our right-of-way,” Bollich said.

Annick Beaudet of the Transportation Systems Development Division stressed that the plans are simply frameworks that are designed to move as many people as possible through corridors in a variety of modes.

“That’s always going to be the goal, and we have more tools than we’ve ever had at our disposal to look at that when the time comes,” Beaudet told the Monitor.

Council is planning to resume the discussion on Adler’s bond proposal at a work session scheduled for 9 a.m. Tuesday. It has until Aug. 22 to agree on the bond language and call for a November election. If it makes it that far, voters will have a chance to decide whether the Go Big Corridor Plan is the solution to the city’s enormously unpopular transportation problems.

“The policy and visceral problem we’re trying to solve here is traffic congestion. People feel it as much as they know it. People are genuinely angry about it,” Stanford told the Monitor. “We’re talking about you stuck dead in traffic, screaming silently as you’re stuck behind the bus or you can’t move at all. And it’s talking about how are we going to unclog that.”

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