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Transportation

A new light-rail bridge over Lady Bird Lake could allow buses for an extra $60 million, agency says

An aerial view of Lady Bird Lake where a light-rail bridge would cross.
Nathan Bernier
/
KUT
The Blue Line bridge is planned to cross in this area of Lady Bird Lake. Transit planners want the public's feedback on whether buses should be allowed to use the bridge, too.

Capital Metro buses would have easier access to Austin's downtown under a proposal to enlarge a light-rail bridge planned to cross Lady Bird Lake just east of Congress Avenue.

The proposal by the Austin Transit Partnership (ATP) — the agency overseeing the city's voter-approved light-rail project — would increase the cost of the bridge by about $60 million to $210 million, according to a "very, very preliminary" estimate, said ATP's chief designer Peter Mullan.

"We're trying to build the best transit we can with the resources that we have available to us," Mullan said. "The question will be is that investment worth it in the longterm to the community."

The Blue Line — one of two light-rail routes voters approved under the Project Connect transit expansion — would run 8.2 miles from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport to Republic Square downtown.

A map showing the planned route of the Blue Line
Austin Transit Partnership
The Blue Line is planned to run from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport to Republic Square in downtown Austin.

The track would run along Riverside Drive and cross Lady Bird Lake near the old Austin-American Statesman building, a site expected to become a major mixed-used development after a vote this month by City Council.

A rendering of the proposed development at 305 S. Congress Ave. with the Blue Line bridge in the foreground
Courtesy of SOM
A rendering of the proposed development at 305 S. Congress Ave. with a future Blue Line bridge in the foreground. This bridge design does not reflect ATP's actual plans, but gives an idea of what the area could look like in the future.

Transit planners were initially reluctant to allow buses on the bridge, citing increased costs, space constraints and the possibility that buses could increase the odds of a collision or obstruction on the tracks.

Critics said excluding buses from the bridge would amount to racial and economic discrimination, because CapMetro's regular bus service primarily serves people of color and households with low incomes. Transit officials disputed the argument, saying the Blue Line would serve many of those same riders.

In February, transit planners vowed to take a closer look and report back in April. They'll hold a public meeting tonight at 5:30 to discuss the two options.

The first option would keep the $150 million bridge as planned with light-rail on the east side of the span and a shared-use path for pedestrians and cyclists on the west side of the bridge.

A map showing how Option A for the Blue Line bridge would have light-rail on one side and pedestrians on the other
Austin Transit Partnership
Option A for the Blue Line bridge would have light-rail on one side and pedestrians on the other.

The second option would add a lane for buses between the shared-use path and the rail, increasing the size of the structure and driving up its cost by an estimated 40%.

A map showing how Option A for the Blue Line bridge would have light-rail on one side and pedestrians on the other with buses in the middle
Austin Transit Partnership
Option B for the Blue Line bridge would have light-rail on one side and pedestrians on the other with buses in the middle.

"Operationally, it's not optimal for [buses and light-rail vehicles] to share the guideway at all," Mullan said, citing the risks of collisions and delays. "You're essentially making a bigger bridge."

Buses would already need their own lanes for at least some portion of the bridge, because the rail would enter an underground subway tunnel on the north shore of Lady Bird Lake.

An illustration showing a two-tiered bridge with light-rail entering the underground tunnel and buses crossing on top
Austin Transit Partnership
A two-tiered bridge would allow light-rail to enter an underground tunnel on the north shore of Lady Bird Lake while buses stay at ground level.

But ATP designers opted to keep rail and buses separate for the entire span of the crossing, providing a dedicated right-of-way for both modes of transit while pushing up costs.

Project Connect planners were already looking for places to cut costs after new estimates showed the price tag for light-rail rocketing more than 40% higher to $10 billion.

Construction of the transit bridge is still years away, but ATP hopes to build a consensus on bus access by the end of 2022.

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