Don’t get your hopes up for Austin public transportation


Ryan Young

It’s here at last. Capital Metro just released a draft of its vision for the future of Austin’s public transportation.

It includes high-capacity transit lines running up and down Austin’s busiest streets, including North Lamar, South Congress and East Riverside. In plain English, that means bus and train lines that would run in their own dedicated lanes and therefore be immune to traffic congestion.

It’s a bold plan that would benefit UT and our city tremendously — but Capital Metro still needs to explain how exactly the agency can navigate the minefield that is Austin transportation politics.

The envisioned transit lines could get UT students and staff to class and move them around Austin with ease. Campus would be served directly by the three routes running along North Lamar, Highland and Manor. Instead of stewing in traffic on MoPac or I-35, or sitting on a bus stuck in the Drag, Longhorns would glide through traffic on light rail trains and rapid buses.

The student communities along Riverside would also be connected to campus via the Riverside line. This could potentially replace today’s UT shuttles, which get stuck in I-35 traffic and don’t run on Saturdays. Even commuter students living outside of Austin would benefit — they would have the option to leave their cars at outlying stations and ride transit the rest of the way, dodging freeway congestion and avoiding the hassles of parking on campus.

In the long run, the transit lines would give students more affordable living options by providing fast, reliable links to campus from outlying neighborhoods with lower costs of living. Additionally, the possible extension to the Domain presents an opportunity to build more University-run housing at the Pickle Research Campus.

But it’s too early to tell if this plan will ever become a reality.

Capital Metro estimates the full plan could cost $6-8 billion to build — no thanks to expensive design options such as elevated rail over the Drag — and the agency doesn’t have a very good track record when it comes to developing a community consensus around its projects.

Ages ago in 2012, Capital Metro dreamt up a similar fantasy map of light rail and rapid bus lines for Austin. The agency picked a starter urban rail line that ran between Riverside and the Highland Mall, using San Jacinto Boulevard through campus. However, public transportation advocates opposed that alignment and argued that a line running up and down North Lamar — known as the Orange Line in the current draft plan — would be a much more cost-effective initial investment, partially because it would serve the dense student housing in West Campus.

Without their support, the bond required to build the Highline/East Riverside line failed at the ballot box, 57-43. That loss caused CapMetro to return to the drawing board, and 6 years later we find ourselves back at square one of a process that feels eerily familiar — without a game plan to connect with Austin voters.

Capital Metro is currently preparing for a big 2020 vote on transit. If the agency doesn’t want another embarrassing loss on its hands, then they need to reassure the public that this time, they won’t repeat past mistakes. For now, until Capital Metro releases a concrete plan to turn that fantasy map into reality, it’s too early to say whether the agency has turned a new leaf.

There is hope, but there is also reason for skepticism.

Young is a computer science senior from Bakersfield, California. He is a senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @ryanayng.