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Tapping TOD Principles to Continue Sustainable Growth in Austin

Posted on August 10, 2010 by JB Arrington

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[IMAGE]tod-1.jpg[/IMAGE]Historically, cities built transit lines to move people; today, they build transit lines to ensure the sustainable growth of their communities as well. The City of Austin, Texas seized the opportunity created by an expansion of its public transit system to plan for continued sustainable growth using the principles of transit-oriented development (TOD).

Austin prides itself on a track record of highly involved neighborhoods and a history of Smart Growth initiatives as key contributors to its high quality of life. Several years ago, in anticipation of opening its first commuter rail line — Capital MetroRail, which began service on March 22, 2010 — the city began TOD planning for the areas surrounding the Plaza Saltillo, Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. (MLK), and Lamar Blvd./Justin Lane (Crestview) stations. The neighborhoods were of two minds: they supported the broad goals of locating new housing, jobs and stores near the proposed rail stations to encourage transit use and walking, but they were concerned about losing the identity and character of their communities to gentrification and wary of significant increases in density.

In February 2007, Parsons Brinckerhoff (PB) initiated TOD planning using a broad-based, community-driven process to engage citizens in an interactive conversation about their neighborhoods, their concerns about gentrification and their vision for future growth. Working in small groups over a number of months, plans were tested and refined to realize the community's vision and city council's interest in leveraging the significant public investment in transit to achieve broad community goals.

TOD plans for the Plaza Saltillo, MLK and Crestview stations will guide development with detailed land use, transportation and open space plans; heightened development standards and zoning for TOD; new pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly street standards; density bonus opportunities for meeting affordable housing goals; and a detailed financing and implementation strategy.

The plans and zoning were approved by the Austin Planning Commission and adopted by the city council in December 2008 and March 2009.

"All Systems Go"

Capital MetroRail is a new passenger rail system between the City of Leander, a suburban community northwest of Austin, and the convention center in downtown Austin.  The Red Line is a 32-mile "starter line," providing service to commuters during peak morning and afternoon hours. Operating on existing freight tracks, MetroRail has nine stations between Leander and downtown Austin. Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Capital Metro) is developing plans to expand the days, hours and frequency of service, contingent on funding to purchase additional railcars and expand infrastructure.

MetroRail is one component of Capital Metro's "All Systems Go" Long-Range Transit Plan, which is designed to address the pressures of rapid regional population growth in the Greater Austin area by reducing traffic congestion and preserving the area's quality of life. The plan includes expanded local and express bus service, MetroRapid bus service, and improvements to and expansions of its park-and-ride lots.

Local and express bus service is the backbone of Austin's public transit system. Capital Metro is enhancing and expanding this system, building additional park-and-ride lots in convenient locations and upgrading bus stops with new benches, signage and amenities.

Designed to reduce travel times up to 20 percent, Capital MetroRapid is the next generation of bus service. With initial service planned for two routes — North Lamar/South Congress and Burnet/South Lamar — Capital MetroRapid stops will be located close to existing local service bus stops. Connections with the Crestview and Kramer MetroRail stations are also planned. Capital MetroRapid is planned to run every 10 minutes during peak service and every 15 minutes during off-peak service.

Congress allocated $13 million in the FY 2010 budget for MetroRapid. President Obama's FY 2011 budget proposal recommends $24 million in additional funding through the Federal Transit Administration's (FTA) Small Starts Program, which provides funding for low-cost fixed-guideway and corridor-based bus transit projects. Capital Metro is awaiting a project construction grant agreement with the FTA to enable the project to move forward.

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