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Orange Line alignment brings up question of community priorities

Tuesday, July 23, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

The Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority plans to have a community-supported recommendation for Project Connect’s central high-capacity Orange Line by the end of the year. The recommended “locally preferred alternative” will likely have some combination of details about the route cost and type of vehicles, but since the stations and transitway can be built for either buses or light rail, the agency’s primary question at this point is, where to put the dedicated path to carry those vehicles.

Wrapping up this Wednesday evening at the North Austin YMCA, Capital Metro initiated a series of community workshops last week in which the public was invited to give feedback and ask questions about the proposed Orange Line route. Before discussions began, Capital Metro and engineering firm AECOM representatives rehashed the fundamental need for dedicated transit lanes in order to give the project any chance of success.

As noted Wednesday by Jerry Smiley, AECOM’s Orange Line project manager, the popular 801 route that now serves the corridor “is only as good as the traffic that it operates in.”

The Orange Line, on the other hand, is intended to move more efficiently than private vehicles can, especially during peak traffic hours. To make that possible, Smiley explained, the agency is considering four different profiles at every point along the route, from Tech Ridge Center to Slaughter Lane. Each profile – running at, above or below street level in either a bored tunnel or a partially covered roadway – has unique pros and cons.

For example, he said, “While at street level, it’s maybe a little bit less cost-intensive, it can only go as fast as the posted speed limit.” In contrast, the other three options may come at a “much higher cost from a capital perspective,” but can offer “very significant” operational efficiency savings.

Speed, in particular, was a major advantage of grade separation often discussed Wednesday. While elevated or below-ground light rail cars could theoretically run at speeds up to 55 mph, according to AECOM’s Julia Suprock, vehicles at the surface would be constrained not only by speed limits, but potentially by traffic at intersections and other obstacles on the street.

In a best-case scenario, where the transit vehicles have complete signal priority allowing them to avoid wasting any time at traffic lights, the vehicles would still need to run within the speed limit for safety reasons.

With the primary objective being dedicated lanes, however, several community transit advocates objected to the logic of dedicating significant resources to build above or below surface level to attain only modest savings in travel time.

A more important issue, said Jay Blazek Crossley, executive director of the nonprofit Farm&City, is how the transit line and stations function as a piece of the surrounding area. “From a transit user point of view,” he said, “what’s most important is the integration of the station into the place where it is, and (in that regard) surface is far superior to all the other options.”

Crossley also interrogated Capital Metro’s primary rationale for proposing going above or below the surface at certain points: lack of sufficient right-of-way space. While the agency is not considering alternatives to surface-level transitways in a few areas, particularly at the northern and southern segments of the route where the right of way is around 120 feet, the three alternatives are being considered in more constrained places, such as the segments of Guadalupe Street directly north and south of 29th Street.

Many of those “narrow” segments, Crossley said, with approximately 80 feet of right of way, are not actually so constrained. “There’s plenty of space,” he said. “We’re wasting that space on car lanes.”

With car lane preservation a highly charged issue, Scott Morris proposed a way to keep the transit at the surface while sticking to Mayor Steve Adler’s vision of preserving car travel lanes with a “couplet” configuration that would direct a southbound leg of the route down Nueces Street between 29th Street and 24th Street. That solution, he said, would still allow ample space for sidewalks, existing car lanes and the transitways.

“We need to make sure we’re not writing off a surface solution where the alternatives could add $2, $3 or $4 billion to the project,” concluded Morris, the founding director of Central Austin Community Development Corporation and a member of the Austin Coalition for Transit.

Suprock acknowledged that, while the routes so far are “fairly fixed,” AECOM is still analyzing options similar to the “couplet” Morris described that could prevent the need to go above or below the street. In the coming months, she said, the firm will be exploring ways to “allocate space within the priority corridor as well as possibly adjacent roadways to see if there are ways we can balance the transportation network.”

Map image courtesy of Capital Metro.

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