Austin Wants to Build a Light Rail-Streetcar Hybrid

Austin Urban Rail couples the best part of streetcar and light-rail transit to connect urban and suburban commuters.

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A rendering for a proposed light-rail transit line in Austin, Texas. (Project Connect)

It could be the teaser for a sweet new Ford pickup: Tighter turning for city driving. Faster speeds for country commuting. But Austin's new hybrid project is meant to get drivers out of their vehicles. 

Last month, Austinites got a first look at Austin Urban Rail, the light-rail project at the heart of a high-capacity transit vision for Central Texas. The 9.5-mile track extends from East Riverside Drive north over Lady Bird Lake (via a new, to-be-constructed bridge) through east downtown to Highland Mall north of the city.

The project is expected to cost $1.4 billion (in 2020 dollars). That figure includes estimated costs for design services as well as vehicle and right-of-way acquisitions. The vehicles that Austin will get are something new, according to Kyle Keahey, vice president for HNTB and urban rail project lead.

"Light-rail manufacturers want to improve their vehicles to compete in the streetcar arena," Keahey says.

Austin's urban-rail cars will be designed to accommodate the tighter turning radii of a streetcar as well as the higher speeds of light rail. Keahey, who headed up the Project Connect effort responsible for the plan, says that the hybrid characteristic is crucial to "address some of the congestion elements that are anathema to Austin."

Map courtesy Project Connect

In Austin's east downtown, traffic is choked by congestion along I-35. Much of this traffic stems from short trips, Keahey says. The streetcar-esque light-rail design means that the urban-rail system can navigate tighter right-of-way turns and more stops through east downtown. The vehicles can be coupled together like light-rail cars, but they could also operate in mixed-flow traffic, if necessary.

Many of the questions surrounding the urban rail plan so far concern costs. They include nine cars, two maintenance facilities, a bridge over the lake, and a tunnel where the light-rail crosses paths with Capital Metro. Keakey argues that the $1.4 billion price-tag puts Austin's proposed urban rail in line with other recent light-rail initiatives.

Light-Rail Corridor Length (in miles) Cost Year
Houston Southeast 6.6 $823 million 2012
Houston North 5.3 $756 million 2013
Portland-Milwaukie 7.3 $1.49 billion 2013
Minneapolis–St. Paul 9.8 $957 million 2013
Austin Urban Rail 9.5 $1.38 billion 2014

Many more in Central Texas are questioning the wisdom of building a light-rail line along the Highland–East Riverside sub-corridor in east downtown Austin instead of the Guadalupe–North Lamar sub-corridor in west downtown Austin. Cheyenne Krause, public-information specialist with the Austin Transportation Department, says that many trips originating in west downtown Austin, in particular from the West Campus neighborhood, proceed east–west, not north–south. Keahey says that east of downtown, Austin can build light rail that serves the place where growth will be highest in future years.

"We’ve tried to design a path for the process, to serve as many of the people as possible," he says.

Both the questions about cost and vision will factor into decisions made by stakeholders regarding phasing—which will help to determine whether Austin can get the most out of a hybrid streetcar-light rail train. Project Connect officials have put forward three scenarios for Austin's City Council and Capital Metro board to consider this month, including a 7.3-mile urban rail (for $990 million) and a 5.7-mile urban rail (for $820 million).

The planners expect approximately half of the urban rail's costs to be paid by federal dollars. The remaining funding will come in the form of obligation bonds. In August, Austin's City Council will shape the bond language for a November election. While voters will be deciding primarily on what sort of urban rail they want for their city, they'll also be deciding what sort of test we can expect for this hybrid light rail model.  

The entire Central Texas plan for high-capacity public transit. Map courtesy Project Connect.

 

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously a senior editor at Architect magazine, and a contributing writer to Washington City Paper and The Washington Post.