Project Connect plan calls for eliminating cars on the Drag in Austin
An updated design for Austin’s multi-billion-dollar Project Connect transit plan calls for removing vehicular traffic from the Drag — a popular and heavily traveled stretch of Guadalupe Street along the western edge of the University of Texas campus — and to make the area open only to people who walk, bike, ride the bus, or use the city’s planned light rail system.
Peter Mullan, head of architecture and urban design for the Austin Transit Partnership, said that between increasing transit options and improving key intersections, such a change would not result in a increased traffic elsewhere in the city.
Mullan and other members of the Austin Transit Partnership, which operates Project Connect, presented the Drag’s updated design to the community at a town hall Tuesday night. Updates are based in part on community feedback, Mullan said. His goal was to hybridize the two previously presented designs and solicit more feedback to incorporate into the next version.
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Project Connect was introduced in 2020 as a generational opportunity to remake Austin’s public transit system. The plan calls for two light rail lines, a tunnel in downtown Austin and several new bus lines. The plan also includes housing funds, equitable development planning and more city parking options.
Austin voters approved an 8.75 cent increase in city property taxes to help pay for the project in 2020, though more than half of Project Connect’s costs are expected to be funded by federal grants. The price was originally expected to be around $7.1 billion, but project leaders recently announced that the estimated cost had risen to over $11 billion, citing inflation and design changes.
The project will take years to materialize. The orange and blue light rail lines – the orange line would run along the Drag – won’t be in service until around 2030. Some projects, such as two MetroRapid bus rapid transit lines, will go live much sooner than they already were. being developed before election day.
The new design
Mullan said the goal of the Drag design is to efficiently move as many people as possible through this hallway, keeping in mind the special needs of university students, faculty and staff who use the area. The street will include a light rail line in the middle and an expanded space for pedestrians, bicycles and buses.
The Drag, which stretches from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to 26th Street, has for decades been a popular gathering place for UT students and other visitors. It includes a number of retail stores and restaurants.
“Drag is obviously one of the really iconic spaces in the city of Austin,” Mullan said. “We’re bringing this new mobility infrastructure, but in doing so, how do we actually leverage it to really improve the drag experience so that it’s both a place that works from a mobility perspective, but also a place where people want to be?”
Tuesday’s meeting aimed to showcase two versions of Project Connect’s new design for the Drag: one in which the buses run on light rail and another with a lane shared by buses and cyclists. Both of these options have been modeled in other cities, Mullan said.
“We’re offering a layout that really maximizes and optimizes the environment for pedestrians and cyclists and also has the ability to incorporate buses into this ‘transit mall’ idea,” he said. “We are maintaining the necessary bus service to the Drag because it is generally important while providing facilities for cyclists and pedestrians to make it a place that really supports all modes of transport and maximizes the flow of people in the streets.”
Mike McHone, acting president of the University Area Partnership neighborhood group, said he and his group oppose the removal of vehicular traffic from Guadalupe Street.
“We want to make sure there’s no diversion of through traffic in the neighborhood where we have all the high-density projects that have been built,” McHone said. “We think light rail can be designed to fit the neighborhood and not be a situation where it diverts existing traffic that uses Guadalupe Street as a passageway.”
McHone said another priority for his group is to ensure there are separate passageways for pedestrians, compared to bicycles and scooters, which is reflected in this plan. He said he wanted to make sure businesses and other organizations in the area could continue to operate.
“We want to make sure there’s adequate capacity to serve the businesses that exist in the neighborhood,” he said. “We probably have 10 different religious institutions in this very small area. All of them have weddings and funerals and things that need to happen.”
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Move more people
Changes to the Drag Zone are expected to significantly increase the number of people who can move through the zone each day, according to Project Connect officials.
The current street can accommodate approximately 6,470 people per hour northbound by vehicle, walk, bicycle, scooter and public transit. A previous design that maintained a car-only lane would have allowed about 19,250 people per hour to travel north. The transit-only option should be able to move 21,160 people north per hour.
Removing the vehicular lane would allow the design to include wide sidewalks, a separate bike lane and trees for shade, which Mullan said was important to community members. The sidewalk would be wider on the west side where retail businesses and restaurants attract more visitors.
Mullan said the cost of the Drag part of Project Connect hasn’t been broken down separately, but said that part of the design shouldn’t have a wide variety of cost options.
“We work with a predefined area. This fingerprint does not change. That’s really pretty much where we put everyone in this footprint,” he said. “In terms of thinking about the design of this area, I don’t think cost will be the driving factor.”
Concerns have been raised in the community about the impact of this part of the project on several local businesses, primarily between 27th and 29th streets where the road is much narrower. Mullan said the updated design didn’t change which businesses would have to relocate to accommodate the light rail system.
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One such business, Dirty Martin’s, has been owned by Mark Nemir for decades and sits on land valued at $1.4 million, according to the Travis Central Appraisal District. Nemir told the Statesman in April that he had no discussions with the city about a potential payment amount if he needed to relocate the business. He said he intended to fight to stay on his current property and received public support.
” Where are we going ? said Nemir. “I’m pretty well positioned here, right next to the University of Texas, and I’ve been here for 96 years. And wonderful things are happening here.
Mullan said he understands the transit changes will create a difficult situation for affected businesses and said he is trying to communicate with them as much as possible.
“We have a lot of sympathy for the businesses that are going to be affected by this,” Mullan said. “We have a long way to go before we start building, to make sure we have really good, solid lines of communication to deal with what is admittedly not the best situation for these companies.”
What happens after
Mullan said the updated Project Connect proposal went beyond what was required in the design documents by 30% for the Drag, which is a significant milestone in a large project like this. However, the design is not complete, and the team plans to continue soliciting public feedback and incorporating it into the process, he said.
Mullan said he was excited about the vision this design presents for the Drag – a place with people on the go and enjoying the conveniences the city has to offer.
“We’re able to create places for people with all these different modes of transportation in one space. I think it’s going to be an incredibly vibrant and vibrant place, as well as providing safe ways to get around,” he said. “It’s our community, we need to create places where we’re going to be and hang out.”