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Friday, May 12, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

Effort to move buses faster stalls at Urban Transportation Commission

Top local transportation planners on Tuesday tapped the brakes on an activist-crafted effort aimed at increasing transit use.

At the monthly Urban Transportation Commission meeting, Transportation Director Rob Spillar, Corridor Program Implementation Office Director Mike Trimble and Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority Long Range Planning Director Javier Arguello each indicated that any talk of planning for new transit-dedicated lanes will happen later rather than sooner.

Before the commission was a resolution that would have called on City Council to order staff to take a fresh look at existing corridor plans and prepare a new report on transit priority options. Crafted by transit activist Susan Pantell, the measure was sponsored and cosponsored respectively by commissioners J.D. Gins and Mario Champion.

“Before we go ahead and do design-and-build for these corridors and start pouring concrete and spending money, we should really seriously look at transit priority measures, in particular transit lanes,” Pantell told the commissioners.

Of the seven completed corridor studies that were included in November’s $720 million mobility bond, only three envision transit priority lanes, and each of those to different degrees. The Guadalupe Street plan would convert outside car lanes to bus lanes. Meanwhile, long-term plans for East Riverside Drive and Burnet Road (north of U.S. Highway 183) call for center-running transit lanes.

While the Guadalupe Street plan is still technically under development, the latter two were published in 2013 after years of public input and development.

“There’s a lot of change that’s happened, in the growth of the city and who lives here, and in priorities and what the citizens want,” Pantell argued.

Last year, Council directed staff to develop a comprehensive transit priority policy to guide the deployment of treatments such as bus lanes, queue jump signals, transit signal priority and bus stop placement. Council then voted last month to allow that policy planning initiative to be folded into the larger effort to develop the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan, a sweeping road map for long-term city transportation decisions that is expected to be delivered to Council next spring.

According to Trimble, that’s also the same time that his team from the Capital Planning Office should produce its Corridor Construction Program, which will map out how to spend the $482 million chunk of the bond reserved for projects along the arterials.

Meanwhile, in April 2018, Capital Metro expects to wrap up Phase two of Project Connect and unveil “detailed analysis” of specific modes on specific routes.

Without a fresh study of potential transit-only lanes on the corridors before that triple climax of transportation planning, Gins said, “It’s like putting the cart before the horse.”

Noting that the existing bus-only lanes on Guadalupe and Lavaca streets still generate controversy three years after they were created, Spillar said, “Transit is absolutely important, but just as we learned in the (2014 light rail) election, there’s not one solution that fits every location and we need to be flexible.”

Spillar added, “I’m not sure transit lanes in every location would benefit the greatest number of people, but where we have proposed them, I think they do.”

He also noted that the Texas Department of Transportation owns either sections or the entirety of most of the 2016 bond corridors, a fact that adds an extra layer of difficulty to pursuing transit-dedicated lanes.

Trimble suggested that the window for the kind of study that Pantell’s resolution envisioned had closed on the current batch of infrastructure investments. However, he allowed, “As we talk about that next tranche of project-funding, that’s where we can really look at what’s coming out of (the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan), what things can we coordinate there and what things can we coordinate with potential transit priorities coming out of Project Connect.”

Arguello pointed out that creating transit-only lanes is easier said than done. Citing complications in Capital Metro’s plans for its permanent Downtown Station, he explained that building infrastructure on public right-of-way is complicated by the presence of proximate utilities that need to be moved or upgraded. He said he would rather wait for that work to be finished first.

“For me that is probably the biggest benefit that the bond program can bring to a transit component to really be ready, not just at the surface level but with all the infrastructure that is under the street that we don’t even see, and which is very, very important and very expensive to actually deal with,” Arguello said.

Commissioner Dan Hennessey, a traffic engineer at Big Red Dog Engineering, expressed skepticism with the deadline for the transit priority report spelled out in Pantell’s resolution.

“Having been on the other side of this and evaluating these things that are being asked for, this is not a short ask and the 60-day timeline is not a reasonable timeline,” he said.

Champion concurred with that assessment and soon Gins was the sole commissioner expressing support for the resolution. Upon the final vote, it failed 6-3. Commissioners Hennessey, Champion, D’Ann Johnson, Eric Rangel, Cynthia Weatherby and Alex Reyna opposed it, while Gins was joined in his support by commissioners Kelly Davis and Beverly Silas (who also serves as vice chair of the Capital Metro board of directors). Commissioner Chris Hosek did not attend the meeting.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin Strategic Mobility Plan

City of Austin Urban Transportation Commission: The UTC is the body charged with advising the City of Austin's Mayor and Council on transportation-related issues.

Transportation Department: This city department is responsible for municipal transportation planning including roadways and bikeways.

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