Photo by Ryan Thornton
Friday, September 25, 2020 by Savana Dunning

New changes to Congress Avenue mark step toward permanent street redesign

Austin Transportation is installing the first of many temporary safety and mobility additions to Congress Avenue this week as the interim step toward the city’s complete redesign project launched in 2017.

During the four- to six-week phased installation process, the city plans to add dedicated right-turn lanes, shorter pedestrian crosswalks, protected pedestrian intersections, simplified lanes and enhanced bicycle crossing markings in front of on-street parking spots. See a full map of the changes.

The changes are meant to address safety issues Austin Transportation’s Vision Zero team discovered through the City Council-requested evaluation of high-injury roadways. The city identified 13 roads in need of safety improvements, with Congress Avenue among the streets listed.

Laura Dierenfield, a division manager with Austin Transportation, said the new additions are in line with the city’s Congress Avenue Urban Design Initiative, which was launched in 2017. This project, funded by the 2012 mobility bond, re-envisions Congress with more pedestrian focus, wider sidewalks, bicycle and scooter lanes, and five-car lanes instead of six.

Dierenfield said a March 2019 mobility report by the city showed the street needed significant changes.

“Congress Avenue, as currently configured, doesn’t really work well really for anybody,” Dierenfield said. “There’s congestion in the peak period, there’s conflict on the sidewalks. There’s not a lot of comfort for people trying to cross the street if you’re a pedestrian.”

Council took a step toward the plans outlined in the initiative in June, when it passed a resolution installing temporary protected bike lanes on Congress Avenue. Dierenfield said while completing the full vision for the initiative remains “years away,” these smaller improvements are meant to make the intersections better in the interim.

The Urban Design Initiative was developed alongside the Downtown Alliance and has received support from several downtown groups including Bike Austin and the Mexic-Arte Museum. However, the advocacy group Voices for Austin, which is largely critical of decisions made by City Council, opposes the changes to Congress. The group released a press release Wednesday calling the changes “a case study of City Hall’s dictatorship and arrogance.”

Executive Director W. R. “Peck” Young said the claim that the city wants more pedestrian accessibility downtown is “asinine nonsense,” and that the street is just as walkable as it was when he was growing up. He argued that the real reason for the initiative was that Council hates cars, and said that increased parking downtown would benefit the businesses on the strip.

“People want to go where they want to go when they want to go,” Young said. “Not when some central planner tells them they have to ride some idiot choo-choo train whose time has passed, or ride some bus which puts out fumes.”

Dierenfield said the initiative is designed to make Congress a better place for pedestrians as well as motorists.

“It’s a matter of trying to support all the needs of the street, recognizing that it is a really special place historically and predominately for the city,” Dierenfield said. “We can do that in very quick and inexpensive ways as we are now, and we can also dream big like we are with the Urban Design Initiative, to really bring about a vision for what the avenue could be for everyone.”

Austin Transportation plans to present updates on Congress Avenue to the Downtown Commission at its October meeting.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Congress Avenue: Congress Avenue is the central-most road in downtown Austin. It runs from the Texas State Capitol to Lady Bird Lake, where it turns into South Congress Avenue. It is also a historic district first listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

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

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