AUSTIN (KXAN) — Last week, Muhammad Imran received a visit from Austin Transit Partnership officials. The independent organization that is overseen by Capital Metro and the Austin City Council working on designing, constructing and implementing Project Connect.

“They came and they talked to me,” Imran recalled.

The owner of Sam Computers on The Drag near the University of Texas at Austin and West Campus said transit officials stopped by to inform him about Wednesday’s meetings. Two meetings focused on the Orange Line — the nearly 20-mile route that would travel north-south from Tech Ridge in north Austin through The Drag and downtown and south to Slaughter Lane.

“They said we were thinking maybe basically no cars on Guadalupe just only light rail. I said ‘No, that’s no… especially for business,'” he questioned. “‘How is this business going to survive here on Drag with no cars?’”

Project leaders hosted an in-person meeting on campus Wednesday to discuss preliminary design proposals along The Drag, between Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and 27th Street. Students, business owners and other community stakeholders were in attendance and expressed their thoughts on the proposed design elements.

During Wednesday’s presentations, officials acknowledged the impact the addition of a light rail system will have on the region’s look, feel and streetscape. Peter Mullan, chief of architecture and urban design for ATP, said core focuses on the project will be centered on equity, accessibility and sustainability — while still supporting the basic principles of what makes The Drag one of the city’s key destinations.

“It is one of the signature spaces in Austin,” he said, noting its vibrancy, “funkiness” and relationship with UT’s student population.

Project Connect leaders presented two preliminary design options Wednesday: one with an emphasis on a combined light rail and traffic system, with the second previewing a potential “transit mall” that would hone in on combined light rail and bus services.

Option A: Light rail with traffic, bus lanes

Under Option A, this proposed design would include a center platform with light rail lines running along either side, in addition to traffic lanes and a shared-use facility. Along with the presence of both through traffic and bus services alongside the light rail, it would include a shared-use facilities for pedestrians and bike lanes.

However, these pedestrian and bicycle facilities would become more limited come 24th Street, a portion of The Drag that has a narrower right-of-way than areas south. The width of these shared-use paths would decrease north of 24th Street due to limited ROW availability.

Officials noted a signalized intersection for crossing at 21st Street as part of the initial designs.

Option B: Transit mall

As part of the transit mall proposal, preliminary designs highlight a centered light rail system with side platforms for users to access. Designated north and south bus lanes would run adjacent to the light rail, with separated pedestrian and bicycle facilities.

The transit agency previously presented three concept designs for The Drag in July. The first featured what they refer to as a ‘light rail transit mall’ between 21st and 29th streets. It would consist of light rail lines as well as pedestrian and bike lanes but would remove cars from The Drag. 

Slide from the Project Connect - Orange Line Concept Design: The Drag, July 2021 meeting. (Source: Capital Metro)
Slide from the Project Connect – Orange Line Concept Design: The Drag, July 2021 meeting. (Source: Capital Metro)

The second option would keep car traffic on The Drag and create shared-use paths. 

Slide from the Project Connect - Orange Line Concept Design: The Drag, July 2021 meeting. (Source: Capital Metro)
Slide from the Project Connect – Orange Line Concept Design: The Drag, July 2021 meeting. (Source: Capital Metro)

The last option they presented during the July meeting would run from 21st Street and Dean Keeton Street and would make space for bus-only lanes to travel alongside the light rail lines.

Slide from the Project Connect - Orange Line Concept Design: The Drag, July 2021 meeting. (Source: Capital Metro)
Slide from the Project Connect – Orange Line Concept Design: The Drag, July 2021 meeting. (Source: Capital Metro)

All of these options would feature a light rail tunnel from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to 21st Street.

“It’s really understanding these nuances of these places where we can go this way or we can go that way where your feedback will make it a huge mark on what the federal government ultimately decides is a good investment within the city of Austin,” said Lonny Stern, the manager, business and community partnerships at Austin Transit Partnership.

Ahead of Wednesday’s presentation, several UT students said they looked forward to the light rail but questioned how it would be implemented.

“I’m wondering how they’ll do that because there doesn’t seem to be much space,” said UT junior Christopher Agahi about the road.

“I can’t imagine fitting like a whole bus system or transit system with the street as it is,” added Jesus Robledo, another UT student.

Some feedback voiced by students Wednesday centered on the potential impact reduced vehicle traffic on The Drag could have on neighboring side streets. These roadways are traditionally residential and have a large pedestrian presence, they said; an increase in thoroughfare traffic could pose unnecessary safety and congestion concerns.

Officials said the goal is to keep West Campus a local traffic neighborhood, and that they would take into consideration any potential impacts to that.

Other concerns raised by attendees Wednesday afternoon centered on the impact these concepts could have on area developments. One attendee noted two residential developments in the work in the neighborhood that would house 2,000 students upon completion. These tracts would be directly impacted by these proposals if greenlit.

Mullan said leaders are still reaching out to landowners to collect feedback on potential impacts to area businesses. He said other examples of transit-centered facilities — with two examples highlighted in Wednesday’s presentation in Denver and Melbourne — noted enhancements to businesses and increased customer foot traffic.

However, Imran and other business owners like James Nelson from Wooten Barber Shop can’t help but wonder what these transit changes could mean for their future.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen, how it’s going to affect, we will see,” Imran said.

A second, virtual meeting will take place this afternoon starting at 5:30 p.m. and those who would like to attend that meeting can also register online.