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Contra-flow lane eyed as solution to up-up, down-down lurching of traffic at MLK

Monday, February 12, 2018 by Caleb Pritchard

While plans to dedicate two lanes on the Drag to transit have been shelved for the moment, city planners hope to tweak another bus bottleneck on the Guadalupe Street corridor using 2016 mobility bond money.

Tucked away in the proposed Corridor Construction Program – the laundry list of $450 million in projects aimed for nine main roadways across the city – is a plan to reconfigure how northbound buses cross the threshold of downtown to campus at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Currently, all traffic traveling north on Lavaca Street hits a dead end at MLK and has to turn left on that street before turning right on Guadalupe to continue north. That dogleg intersection backs up during evening rush hour as hordes of commuters pour out of the Capitol Complex and the University of Texas to get to Interstate 35. To help prioritize transit, the city in the spring of 2016 stretched Lavaca’s dedicated bus lane to the light and gave buses a queue-jump signal allowing them to get a head start on cars.

However, the tight space, nearby construction, heavy traffic and a relatively complex configuration frequently led to confused drivers blocking the transit lane or buses blocking the entire intersection. After nearly two years in operation, both the city and the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority are looking for another solution.

“(I)t wasn’t meeting the intent so the bypass alternative was developed and now should be moving to implementation,” Todd Hemingson, Capital Metro’s vice president of strategic development and planning, said on Twitter.

The bypass alternative would have northbound buses on Lavaca turn west onto 18th Street before turning north again to cross MLK via Guadalupe. Because that one-block stretch of Guadalupe is one-way southbound, a contra-flow lane would be created for buses.

That lane would stretch to MLK on the east side of a concrete island. That small chute currently serves as a lane for cars turning south from MLK onto Guadalupe. Preliminary plans envision those cars to turn left onto the street’s main lanes a few feet farther down.

Because the project would consist of repainting lanes, utilizing mostly existing signals, and only minor construction, city engineers predict the new alignment’s cost would be nominal.

“Once we have to start taking a look at moving curbs, that might be a little costlier,” Transportation Engineering Division Manager Eric Bollich said. “But it could be a good benefit for the cost.”

He suggested that MLK’s queue-jump light could be moved one signal south to 17th Street in order to give buses in the transit priority lane time to merge across Lavaca Street in order to turn on 18th.

For now, though, the plans are still highly preliminary, and issues such as the buses’ ability to safely turn from 18th onto the contra-flow lane without veering into southbound traffic remain undetermined.

“Part of the design process is the cost-benefit analysis we would do. If it’s going to cause major pain for a ton of people, that’s something that we would take into account,” ATD spokesperson Cheyenne Krause said. “But certainly we know that this corridor is moving a significant number of people on transit, and this could be a challenge that we face, but it’s for the benefit of the greater good.”

The urbanist group AURA, which began specifically as a light rail advocacy group before broadening its oeuvre, has responded to the proposed Corridor Construction Program with a petition drive to urge City Council to include the creation of dedicated bus lanes up the Drag from MLK to 29th Street. In a statement, the group tut-tutted the less-ambitious contra-flow plan.

“It’s a good idea to get cars out of the way of the buses there, but without a transit priority lane, buses are likely to continue to bottleneck going northbound at Guadalupe during rush hour,” AURA Board President Susan Somers said. “Continuous transit priority lanes are not expensive and would improve trips for half the people traveling on that corridor without significant negative impacts on autos.”

Staff from the Corridor Program Office will shop the proposed program to various boards and commissions in the coming weeks. City Council is scheduled to get its first briefing on the list of projects on March 20 before voting on it on March 22.

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