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Project Connect Blue Line yet to be defined

Friday, August 2, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

In the shadow of 2014’s failed Highland-Riverside rail ballot measure, the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s similarly charted Blue Line is struggling to take form.

The Blue Line is one of Project Connect’s two high-capacity transit lines. If approved, it will run in some form of dedicated transitways between the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and the Austin Community College Highland campus. What happens between those two terminus points, however, remains uncertain.

At Wednesday evening’s Blue Line corridor workshop, the transit agency proposed two general alternative routes under consideration. The route alternatives can be viewed on Capital Metro’s website.

Like the 2014 plan, the first option proposes a new bridge crossing over Lady Bird Lake east of the Austin American-Statesman site to connect with Trinity Street or Waller Creek to the north. Unlike the 2014 route, however, before extending north via the east side of the University of Texas campus, the Blue Line would take a sharp westbound detour to Republic Square where passengers could catch a local bus or connect to the proposed high-capacity Orange Line.

The second route option avoids the awkward dash to Republic Square by joining the Orange Line route at South Congress Avenue and Riverside Drive before heading north to Republic Square. From there, the route would diverge from the Orange Line and head east to follow its proposed path either up Trinity Street or a partially realigned Red River Street.

With considerable ongoing and proposed investments to the southeast downtown district and the planned redevelopment of the South Central Waterfront, several residents offered support for the first proposal, which would feature stops near both areas.

Sandra De Leon, president of the Rainey Neighbors Association, said the district is in desperate need of new connectivity solutions. With 10 new high-density site applications currently being processed, and very limited connectivity to the street grid, De Leon said, having the Blue Line pass through the neighborhood would be a major part of solving transportation problems for thousands of residents and visitors. As proposed, however, the first option’s Downtown Station stop would still be roughly a half-mile walk from Rainey Street residents.

For now, the Downtown Station area does not have as much transit-supportive activity as other downtown stops like Republic Square. “The convention center is just a big box,” said Joe Clemens, the agency’s deputy project manager. That could change in the future, he acknowledged, but today it’s not generating very much street-level activity on a regular basis.

Besides questions of ridership, the first option also requires building a new bridge. According to Steve Roth, an engineer working on Project Connect, that bridge alone could be popular for offering a new dedicated crossing for pedestrians and bicycles in addition to the transitways. But as Clemens noted, the bridge connecting to Trinity Street in the 2014 proposal was expected to add around $100 million to the total cost.

Regardless of the option chosen, a new bridge crossing across the lake may be unavoidable. Roth said engineers studying the Orange Line route aren’t yet sure if the South First Street bridge would be sufficient for the transitways or if an adjacent structure would need to be built. If a new bridge is needed, the Blue Line vehicles could share that transitway under the route’s second option.

Roth said the first alternative could also be served by two transit lines, one that makes a side trip to Republic Square and another that continues directly north. Under that system, depending on the final destination, riders could choose the line that works best.

In attendance at the workshop, transit advocate Lyndon Henry with Austin Rail Now argued that neither option is optimal. Rather than continuing north from the University of Texas to Highland, Henry proposed a route that joined the Orange Line at South Congress Avenue and Riverside Drive, took a detour east from Republic Square north to Dean Keeton Street, and then headed west again to join the Orange Line to Tech Ridge.

The public can view the workshop visual materials and make comments on the Blue Line virtual open house until Aug. 13.

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