A $1.4-billion urban rail plan, Project Connect is the city of Austin’s proposed answer to Austin’s public transportation problem. It’s a blueprint for a 9.5-mile-long train line that would start along East Riverside drive, run north through UT, and end at Highland Mall’s Austin Community College Campus. Despite public skepticism—many locals are upset that the train would skip the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor—the plan is incrementally moving forward, with Cap Metro and City Council approving it this month. Whether voters will fund it at the ballot box in November is an open question, as are the other pieces of the funding puzzle (which will likely include federal and state money as well).
We asked transit expert Randy Machemehl of UT’s Center for Transportation Research to give us his take on the plan and its implications for the city and the university.
What do you think of the current rail plan?
On the whole, I think it’s a good step forward. For decades, Austin has been reluctant to add capacity to any of its infrastructure despite the fact that we’ve had lots of growth. So this will add some capacity, and that’s a good thing. But rail is only part of the solution.
We could solve the transportation problem overnight, for free, without building anything. Why does everybody need to go to work at 8 a.m. and go home at 5 p.m.? That also increases demand on the water system and the electric system. If flex-time, telecommuting, and four-day workweeks were more popular, we wouldn’t have this problem. Carpooling would also be a great solution. Right now we have one person per car during the commute, and if we had two people per car, the problem is fixed. Of course, it’s very hard to change people’s behavior. We’ve been trying to get people to carpool for 30 years.
Has Austin reached a breaking point where people are willing to change their transportation behavior?
It’s happening right now. The simplest way to get people to use more transit would be to do nothing. Because congestion does drive people. My friend at A&M put out a study projecting that it’ll take three hours to drive from Round Rock to Austin by 2035—well, people aren’t stupid, they aren’t going to be willing to do that. It’s not going to happen. There will have to be changes, whether it’s more people using transit or living closer to where they work.
What will this train mean for UT?
UT is already a transit campus. We have 70-75,000 people here on a school day, and only 15,000 parking spots. So a lot of people are already using public transportation. I think that developers will quickly provide housing along the line where students will want to live. I serve on UT’s shuttle bus committee, and we track where students live over time. We’ve seen a trend of more students living closer to campus, especially in West Campus, and I expect that trend to continue. We’ll see a significant number of students living in locations easily accessed by this rail.
I think San Jacinto will be a challenge. That road is already crowded—there are a number of bus routes through there, plus many cars, pedestrians, and cyclists. With a train there as well, it’s going to get really crowded. Maybe some off-road bike lanes could be added, or maybe we won’t need as many buses once there’s a train. We’ll have to address that problem somehow.
Critics of the rail proposal are unhappy that the train would skip the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor in favor of the Highland area, which is a ghost town right now, but the city is banking on projections that Highland will become much busier. What’s your take? It seems like a chicken-and-egg problem.
I think both sides are right. One of the primary advantages of urban rail is it can be a way of influencing how the city looks in the future. And that’s true. As long as the city has policies that allow land use to change around the rail stations, and Austin does, then that will no doubt happen. The people who say the Highland area will change are right. It won’t change overnight and it’ll probably take 10 years or so, but it will change. I think there’s no doubt about that. My friends in the development community are much more willing to invest in projects at rail stations than bus stops because it’s very unlikely the rail alignment will change.
On the other hand, given current Cap Metro ridership, their heaviest route has for years been Route 1 on Guadalupe and Lamar. There’s more usage on that corridor than on the proposed corridor. It would make sense to put a train there. That’s what was proposed in 2000 [in a light rail proposal that voters did not fund]. But I don’t think Highland is a gamble, either. The same people who say it’s a gamble are the people who say the Red Line [MetroRail] is running empty all the time, and that thing is running full. As long as Austin continues to have land use policies that will allow redevelopment, I think this train could significantly reshape the Highland area. Looking to the future is not a bad thing at all.
Rendering courtesy Project Connect
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