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

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

Thursday, December 9, 2021 by Nathan Bernier, KUT

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

The question has been a hot topic among keen observers of the process and recently emerged during a public design workshop hosted by the Austin Transit Partnership, the state-owned company created to oversee the expansion of the Connect project.

On Tuesday, the debate over buses on the light rail bridge spilled over into a contentious meeting of the city’s Urban Transportation Commission, a body that advises the city council.

“We must not let the design of this new bridge compound our city’s oppressive and racist past,” Commissioner Samuel Franco said, referring to Austin. 1928 master planwhich forced black residents to move to the east side of town.

Franco argued that regular bus riders – nearly two-thirds of whom are people of color – according to the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority — would be disadvantaged if buses were prohibited from using a dedicated bridge to access downtown Austin.

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

The ATP said the light rail system also aims to serve a diverse customer base. But the organization’s lead designer listed a number of concerns about allowing buses on a level crossing intended exclusively for light rail, pedestrians and cyclists.

“It was not part of the planning leading up to the referendum (Project Connect) and certainly part of our initial design phase,” said Peter Mullan, head of architecture and urban design at ATP.

In particular, he said, he was unsure how buses could fit into an underground tunnel on the north side of the lake because it is so limited.

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

“Weaving buses into this, I think, is going to be very difficult,” he said.

Experts and consultants have advised the ATP not to share light rail tracks with other vehicles, Mullan said, as this could introduce a 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 replied that Tilikum Crossing in Portland could be a model for a shared bridge. The Willamette River Bridge, which opened in 2015, accommodates light rail, buses, streetcars, cyclists and pedestrians.

Mullan said the Tilikum Crossing bridge “is a completely different scale” than the planned Blue Line bridge over Lady Bird Lake.

Some members of the Urban Transport Commission were not convinced. They discussed the possibility of a vote at their next meeting to urge Council to consider allowing design firms to determine how to add bus capacity to the bridge.

ATP plans to launch a request in January for engineering companies around the world to compete for the contract to design the bridge. A decision on whether the bridge should allow buses should only be made after those companies are selected, Mullan said.

Regardless of what happens with the Blue Line Bridge, Capital Metro buses may get another priority to cross Lady Bird Lake.

The city is considering allowing dedicated bus lanes on the South First Street Bridge, Austin Department of Transportation Deputy Director Anna Martin revealed during the commission meeting.

The idea had been shelved pending the design of the Orange Line today foreseen to enter downtown from South Austin via a tunnel which would be dug just west of the South First Street Bridge.

“Now that the plans for the Orange Line are a little clearer, we are reconsidering whether we should continue with those plans for the South First Street Bridge,” she said.

This story was produced as part of the austin monitorreporting partnership with KUT.

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