Should buses be allowed on a new light-rail bridge over Lady Bird Lake?

Should buses be allowed on a new light-rail bridge over Lady Bird Lake?

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Photo by Nathan Bernier / KUT. A light rail bridge is planned for this section of Lady Bird Lake, east of the Congress Avenue Bridge.

Thursday 9 December 2021 by Nathan Bernier, KUT

Local officials overseeing Austin’s $ 7 billion public transit expansion plan to launch an international competition to solicit designs for a light rail bridge over Lady Bird Lake. Of the many questions surrounding the appearance and purpose of the structure, one has emerged as perhaps the most controversial: should Capital Metro buses cross the bridge?

The question was a hot topic among keen observers of the process and recently surfaced at a public design workshop hosted by the Austin Transit Partnership, the government company formed to oversee the expansion of Project Connect’s transit.

On Tuesday, the debate about buses on the light rail bridge took place at a controversial meeting of the city’s Municipal Transport Commission, a body that advises the city council.

“We must not allow the design of this new bridge to promote the repressive and racist past of our city,” said Commissioner Samuel Franco, referring to the 1928 Austin master plan that forced black residents to move east of the city.

Franco argued that regular bus drivers – nearly two-thirds of whom are colored, according to the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority – would be at a disadvantage if buses were not allowed to use a special bridge to get into downtown Austin.

“All we hear is, ‘No, we don’t want that.’ We haven’t even opened it to see if (designers) can or can’t, ”he said. “It is a grave injustice.”

According to ATP, the light rail system should also serve a diverse range of passengers. However, the organization’s lead designer raised a number of concerns about allowing buses to enter an intersection exclusively for light rail vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists.

“That was not part of the planning in the run-up to the referendum (Project Connect) and was certainly part of our first design phase,” said Peter Mullan, ATP head for architecture and urban development.

In particular, he is not sure how buses can be built into an underground tunnel on the north side of the lake because it is so cramped.

This illustration shows a landscape view of the entrance of the Blue Line into a tunnel portal on the north side of Lady Bird Lake. (Austin Transit Partnership)

“Involving buses, I think, will be a big challenge,” he said.

Experts and advisors advised ATP not to share the light rail tracks with other vehicles, Mullan said, as doing so could create the risk of collision or obstruction.

A cross-section showing how the Blue Line would enter a tunnel on the north side of Lady Bird Lake after crossing the bridge. (Austin Transit Partnership)

Franco countered that Tilikum Crossing in Portland could be a model for a joint bridge. Opened in 2015, the bridge over the Willamette River offers space for light rail vehicles, buses, trams, cyclists and pedestrians.

Mullan said the Tilikum Crossing Bridge was “on a very different scale” than the bridge planned for the Blue Line over Lady Bird Lake.

Some members of the Urban Transportation Commission were not convinced. They discussed the possibility of a vote at their next meeting asking the council to consider allowing design firms to figure out how to add bus capacity to the bridge.

ATP plans to file an application with engineering firms worldwide in January to bid for the contract to construct the bridge. A decision on whether the bridge should allow buses would not have to be made until these companies are selected, Mullan said.

Regardless of what happens to the Blue Line Bridge, Capital Metro buses could get another priority crossing over Lady Bird Lake.

The city is considering allowing dedicated bus lanes on the South First Street Bridge, Austin Department of Transportation’s assistant director Anna Martin announced at the commission meeting.

The idea was put on hold until the Orange Line was planned, which is now to go from South Austin to downtown through a tunnel that would be dug west of the South First Street Bridge.

“Now that the Orange Line plans are a little clearer, we are re-examining whether we should pursue these plans for the South First Street Bridge,” she said.

This story was produced as part of Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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Should buses be allowed on a new light-rail bridge over Lady Bird Lake?