Transportation
4:41 pm
Fri November 15, 2013

Highland and East Riverside: Austin's Best Spots for Urban Rail?

The group advising the city on urban rail has come out with initial recommendations: a transportation investment that runs from the East Riverside Corridor, through Downtown and out to the Highland Mall region.

As KUT previously reported, the recommendations began by dividing Central Austin into 10 subcorridors – similar to compass points pointing out from a center, including Downtown and the UT campus.

In the end, they chose two subcorridors for investment: Highland and East Riverside.

Credit Project Connect

“East Riverside emerged at the top every single time, every single lens we looked at,” says Kyle Keahey, the project lead for Project Connect.

While public transportation ridership is high in the corridor, it’s south of the river – adding difficulty and cost – to the project. It seems that may have actually worked in its favor: with federal transportation dollars helping subsidize whatever gets built, it could make more sense for Austin to go bigger in rail’s first phase.

Project Connect says it’s all part of what it took into account.

“We didn’t just look at existing ridership we looked at projected population growth, we looked at project employment growth and where those trends are actually emerging,” Keahey says.

But many transportation advocates argue focusing on projected growth – instead of what’s on the ground right now – puts things backwards.

“They’re still continuing not to look at Lamar as an alternative for high capacity transit, rail transit specifically,” says Jace Deloney. He’s a member of the Urban Transportation Commission and founder of a citizens transit group, Austinites for Urban Rail Action.

“The best way that you can invest in public transit is to do it from the core out, and to really focus on real urban arterials that already have the traffic, already have the ridership, already have the development," Deloney says.

He says the Guadalupe/Lamar corridor has all that already. And while Austin Community College has big plans for Highland Mall – development is definitely lacking in at the mall today.

Deloney asks that Project Connect take its recommendations to the City Council for further vetting, so whatever emerges can go forward with boarder support – “because we think that that is essentially to getting people to come together and putting a stake in the ground, saying ‘We’re not going to do what we’ve done the past threee years, we’re actually going to do this in November 2014.”

That’s when Austin voters are expected to vote on an urban rail plan – whatever the council eventually approves for the ballot.