Wire One gondolas won’t resolve Austin’s transit woes

Ryan Young

I needn’t remind you about the horrid state of Austin traffic — but are our leaders working to get our city moving again? Based on the so-called solutions they pursue, not so much.

Case in point: Last September, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, the City of Austin and Capital Metro agreed to blow thousands of dollars on a “high-level” report analyzing the Wire One urban gondola proposal. (Perhaps even more outrageously, they selected Texas A&M Transportation Institute to prepare the study.) The vision is to have Wire One be a gondola line along South First Street from Slaughter Lane to the southwest corner of the UT campus, with 19 stations serving neighborhoods in downtown and south Austin.

On Friday, the report was released. Though it doesn’t delve into specifics, it reveals some serious shortcomings in the Wire One concept.

First, Wire One is slow. The ride from Slaughter to UT is projected to take 46 minutes at an average speed of 11.3 miles per hour. Today, an 801 MetroRapid bus takes 81 minutes during rush hour to travel from Tech Ridge to South Congress at an average speed of 12.2 miles per hour.

Gondola riders would glide through the sky at a truly leisurely pace, moving even slower than buses stuck in traffic.

Second, Wire One has little room to grow. The gondola system is expected to move up to 3,000 passengers per hour at peak travel times, but this is close to the capacity limit. Wire One is dwarfed by conventional mass transit systems — light rail and bus rapid transit (high-capacity buses in dedicated lanes) carry 5,000 passengers per hour and well beyond.

If “costs too much, does too little” defeated light rail for Austin in 2000 and again in 2014, surely a gondola would be a non-starter.

For Austin transportation politics, wasting time and energy on pointless ideas is merely business as usual. Our leaders have a long history of doing what’s easy, not doing what’s right, even as our city remains strangled by congestion.

Consider MetroRail, the commuter rail service that runs from the Convention Center to Leander. It consumes 10 percent of Capital Metro’s budget yet carries just 2 percent of the agency’s ridership. It’s no secret why — the train completely misses major destinations such as the Capitol and UT. That’s because it runs on an old freight railway that was cheap to rehabilitate for passenger service. Spending a fraction of the money means only getting a fraction of the benefit.

Wire One is so appealing because it’s another easy, silver bullet answer to traffic congestion. It promises high-capacity transit without taking away road space while, if the proposal is to be believed, costing less money to build and requiring no land.

But the easy answers don’t work precisely because traffic isn’t an easy problem. To fix Austin’s transportation crisis, we need efficient, cost-effective public transit that provides a viable, useful alternative to stewing in an automobile. And yes, we will need to take away lanes for cars and lanes for parking, because our goal is to move people, not their cars.

As Austin stumbles over its mobility woes, other Texas cities reap the benefits of light rail lines and reimagined bus networks. So I just have to ask: Why is Austin so weird?

Young is a computer science junior from Bakersfield, California. He is a columnist.