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Proposal to kick cars off downtown street yields a surprise

Thursday, October 6, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

A proposal to move cars off of two downtown blocks would have a surprising benefit to late-night congestion, according to the Austin Transportation Department.

Transportation Department staff told the City Council Mobility Committee on Wednesday that accommodating the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Downtown Station expansion by shuffling operations on East Fourth and East Fifth streets will unclog Interstate 35’s northbound frontage road when revelers descend on downtown bars.

“It’s amazing the difference it makes,” the Transportation Department’s Lee Austin told the committee. “It provides much better access for anybody down there in the corridor – for the condo dwellers as well as people staying in the hotel rooms and the people patronizing the clubs downtown.”

Austin was referring to a plan, recommended by Transportation Department staff, to shut down the single westbound car lane on East Fourth Street as it passes by the MetroRail station between Red River and Trinity streets. That loss would be absorbed by the conversion of East Fifth Street into a two-way from I-35 to Brazos Street.

According to the Transportation Department’s traffic study, reversing just one of East Fifth Street’s three eastbound lanes would have a minimal impact on drivers leaving downtown during the evening rush hour. On the other hand, westbound car traffic under this scenario will face delays longer than one minute compared to what’s currently experienced on East Fourth Street. However, the study points out that westbound traffic volumes are significantly lower than those heading east.

Most surprising of the findings, though, according to Transportation Department Director Robert Spillar, is the effect on late-night traffic when East Sixth Street is closed off to motor vehicles. The study determined that vehicles exiting I-35 pile up on the frontage road as they attempt to enter the grid on East Fourth. That backup then blocks traffic attempting to leave the grid via East Fifth.

“We don’t normally look at late-night traffic very closely,” Austin said. “We actually had no idea how bad this was. I had seen it during South by Southwest, but we didn’t realize it was occurring every single weekend on a regular basis. And it’s not just impacting clubgoers but also all those new condo residents and the hotel rooms that we have in this area that we didn’t have previously.”

She explained that the study showed that by allowing cars to enter the grid from I-35 via East Fifth, the gridlock could evaporate.

However, the plan is not without its hitches. Closing off that section of East Fourth Street will turn Neches Street into a cul-de-sac in front of the Hilton Hotel. The hotel will have to reorient its valet service, which currently circles from the garage on Red River Street to the Neches Street portico via three right turns. With the change, valets will have to make three left turns across oncoming traffic.

A representative for the hotel did not respond to a request for comment. However, a tenant of the building, the Austin Chamber of Commerce, did. Andy Cantú, the group’s director of regional mobility, said the chamber supports Capital Metro’s efforts to expand the Downtown Station.

“However, we remain unconvinced that the traffic analysis performed by ATD is sufficiently robust, failing to take into account the multitude of variables that undoubtedly impact congestion in the southeast quadrant of downtown – an area slated for an incredible amount of additional development over the next few years.”

Cantú added, “We respectfully ask that ATD and Capital Metro work to minimize the negative repercussions to neighborhood businesses, residents and visitors that removing Fourth Street from the grid network will have.”

Capital Metro has long been planning the expansion of the Downtown Station, which as it exists today was originally built to be a short-term installation. Using a $22 million grant from the Texas Department of Transportation, the transit agency will build two permanent platforms that will serve three separate tracks. The larger station will be able to accommodate the Red Line’s planned 15-minute frequencies that will be made possible via the purchase of new vehicles.

The Downtown Station ranks among the largest of Capital Metro’s capital improvement projects despite MetroRail’s relatively small ridership. According to the agency’s numbers, the Downtown Station saw an average of 1,483 combined daily boardings and alightings during Mondays through Thursdays in April 2015. By way of comparison, the three bus and MetroRapid stops at Guadalupe Street and the University of Texas’ West Mall, which share two shelters between them, saw 6,943 boardings and alightings per weekday in fall 2015.

According to a Capital Metro spokeswoman, the new station is entering the final design phase, and City Council will consider an interlocal agreement with the agency on Oct. 13. Construction could begin next summer and finish by fall 2018.

During Wednesday’s committee meeting, Council Member Don Zimmerman asked Spillar if there was anything that could make him change his mind about altering the downtown grid.

“Nothing’s a done deal until we construct it, of course,” Spillar replied.

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