Roadway changes coming soon to a transit corridor near you
Friday, March 4, 2022 by Seth Smalley
Transit authorities convened Wednesday morning to announce several long-anticipated city changes to clear the way for the Orange and Blue lines, two stretches of light rail that are part of Project Connect, the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s multibillion-dollar transit infrastructure project.
The changes in question? Left turns are going away at many of the intersections that run adjacent to the two lines, in addition to many of the parking spots on South Congress Avenue and the Drag. Various motorist lanes throughout the city – including on Riverside Drive and Guadalupe Street – are also being removed to make way for the new transit corridors.
Transit officials are also planning to move the Waller Creek Boathouse (location TBD) and a nominal amount of residential units, and add two pedestrian crossings at either end of each planned station.
“A key point, from a pedestrian safety aspect, is every station will have protected signalized pedestrian crossings at both ends of the stations, so no matter which way you exit the train, no matter which way you decide to go, you will be protected as you cross the street,” said Annick Beaudet, a mobility officer with Project Connect.
As a refresher, the Orange Line runs north and south through the center of the city, mainly along South Congress south of the river and Guadalupe Street north of it. The Blue Line – which shares several stops with the Orange Line – starts at the airport running east-west along Riverside Drive, before cutting north across the river just before South Congress to join the Orange Line corridor.
Mayor Steve Adler commented on the massive scale of Project Connect and comparing it to other multibillion-dollar transit projects in the city, namely the Interstate 35 and airport expansions.
“Right now we’re living in the golden age of mobility development here in Austin and Travis County,” Adler said. “What’s interesting is that this $4 billion project (the airport expansion), which could be the largest project in a city, is not our largest project.”
Not even the $6 billion I-35 expansion, Adler continued, is bigger than Project Connect, a $7.2 billion project.
“Project Connect has mass public transit getting within a 10- or 12-minute walk of 60 to 70 percent of the affordable housing that exists in our city,” he said.
Much of the discussion during the meeting between the three bodies – Capital Metro, Austin City Council and Austin Transit Partnership – focused on the decision-making process for the planned changes.
Beaudet explained that the three groups have held several community workshops in regard to the issue of right of way, and seemed to reach agreement.
“We want to have the least amount of disruption to properties as possible while still accommodating not only the retrofitting of rail into our right of way, but our existing pedestrian networks, sidewalks, vehicular networks, etc.,” Beaudet said.
Beaudet said the three groups are in consensus about changing travel ways more than residential areas due to the “current housing crisis we are in.” And true to form, of the major Blue and Orange line changes announced, few of them relate to housing, but $300 million for anti-displacement efforts has been made available through Project Connect.
“That is the number-one area we are trying to reduce impact on,” said Beaudet.
Beaudet also explained some of the reasoning for deciding to remove left turns at Riverside intersections, arguably one of the more disruptive of the slated changes.
“As we all probably know, left turns are tricky today, and adding the crossing of the rail is just another maneuver that is better done with a U-turn maneuver.”
Project Connect is currently in its “30 percent design phase,” a construction and engineering standard used for design. Thirty percent indicates the project is still just a rough idea: The framework exists, but the details do not.
“As we go from 30 to 60 to 90 to 100 percent, those are the steps that really refine it,” said Dave Couch, a program manager for Project Connect. “It will define in detail, for example, in stations.”
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