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Austin continues to explore bus access on the future Lady Bird Bridge

Wednesday, December 15, 2021 by Willow Higgins

Austin’s Urban Transportation Commission, which advises city departments on transportation-related matters, met last week and continued discussions around the possibility of expanding the modes of transportation accessible on the future Lady Bird Bridge. The topic was also discussed at an Austin Transit Partnership public design workshop, and the city will continue the discussions into the new year.

Aptly named, the bridge will cross Lady Bird Lake, providing another way to cross the river from the north or south. Initial plans for the bridge include hosting the Blue Line light rail, a major component of the city’s Project Connect transit expansion, as well as pedestrians and cyclists. The north end of the bridge will lead to a waterfront green space, doubling as a major community transit connector. But on Tuesday, Commissioner Samuel Franco asked his colleagues and Austin Transit Partnership to consider making the future Lady Bird Bridge even more multi-modal and consider bringing bus lines onto the space.

While initial plans for the bridge have been thought out, the bridge itself has not yet been designed; the city will be offering a request for proposal to the public in an international design competition, featuring world-renowned architects like Santiago Calatrava. 

The commission brought in Peter Mullan from the Project Connect office to give preliminary background on the bridge. As of now, the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority has not incorporated buses on this bridge in the initial engineering and preliminary design for two reasons, Mullan explained. The area on the north side of the lake, which will be the community connector hub, will be very constrained in terms of space. Secondly, from a light rail operation standpoint, Mullan said it is best practice for light rails and buses not to share the same guideway. While there are exceptions to this rule of thumb, because of safety concerns, “the light rail experts at (the Austin Transit Partnership) … generally speaking, with almost no exception, do not want to combine other modes onto the guideway,” Mullan said.

But Franco advocated for ATP to pose the design challenge to the experts that will be participating in the design competition.

“They’re about to put out an RFP to world-class design firms to help solve these problems. All I’m asking is that in that RFP, we say, ‘If you can find a way to put buses on this system as well, please incorporate that into your design’ … blocking that off right now and not even giving world-class designers the opportunity to see things from a different perspective is a grave injustice,” Franco said.

Mullan expressed concerns over including unrealistic expectations in the RFP.

“We’re not asking for fantasy, we’re asking for reality. I think that we want to be as clear in our instructions as possible … about how this bridge is going to be operated,” Mullan said. “And again, the direction from Cap Metro has not been to provide bus facility here.”

Franco connected his concerns about the lack of bus access on the future bridge to an equity issue in Austin city planning. Prior to the UTC meeting, Franco also wrote an email to ATP detailing his concerns about the lack of bus access on the bridge. He quoted his email at the meeting. 

“The light rail system has only one east and west route. While I am sure it is well-intentioned, this footprint does not serve the majority of historically underrepresented parts of our city,” the email read. “As we reflect on these past design mistakes and embark on a new design for our city’s bright future, we mustn’t let the design of this new bridge further the oppressive and racist past of our city.” In theory, bringing bus access onto the bridge could provide East Austinites more transit mobility, Franco said.

While Franco has asked the commission to eventually write a memo to City Council requesting Austin Transit Partnership to include the potential for buses on the RFP for the bridge, the commission decided that they need some more information before they proceed. Mullan will be getting back to the commission with details of the technical and operational constraints of the design that may allow or restrict the ability to add the possibility of buses to the plan.

The commission will pick the matter back up in January.

This story has been changed since publication to clarify that it is the Austin Transit Partnership, not the transportation department, that is offering the RFP.

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