Mueller’s Urban Rail Debate

Back on March 6, one of the original design consultants of the Mueller community in Austin came to give a lecture at Texas A&M University.  Jim Adams of McCann Adams Studio spoke about the history of the mixed-use redevelopment of the old airport, providing insight on how it has evolved over time and how it is both meeting and exceeding some of the original goals of the project.  For those who don’t know, Mueller is a 700-acre community northeast of downtown Austin being built on city-owned land by Denver-based Catellus Development.  Construction started back in 2007.

During the lecture I had the opportunity to ask his opinion about the city’s push for urban rail that terminates in the Mueller development.  Specifically, I wanted to know how he would respond to the ongoing criticism that essentially claims Mueller’s density doesn’t support fixed rail transit.

Adams framed the question from critics this way: “Why are you, City, doing an alignment that goes to Mueller when we have more potential riders–or more existing riders–along the Guadalupe line that goes up by the university?”

His response was basically that rail is not just a way of capturing existing riders but is also a tool that encourages new ridership and facilitates new land use that supports it.  The City of Austin believes that the eastern alignment (from downtown to Mueller) opens more opportunity for future development, while the western alignment–though it has more students–is already built out; thus, creating greater density in that area is less likely.

He also brought up an interesting point that the city received federal grant money to develop bus rapid transit (BRT) along the Guadalupe Street corridor, so rail can’t be built there with that money anyway.

Do you agree with Adams’ perspective?

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3 responses to “Mueller’s Urban Rail Debate”

  1. M1EK says :

    No, not in a million years. Mueller at build-out will have far less density than currently exists on the L/G corridor, and L/G will likely grow more than Mueller will, too. L/G also serves as a better spine for future expansion than Mueller does.

  2. Jace Deloney says :

    McCann Adams had a strong influence on getting the city to begin focusing on Mueller after the defeat of the 2000 rail plan. The city has not openly considered rail down Guadalupe/Lamar since then (it’s been 13 years). A lot has changed since the George W Bush era of federal transportation funding.

    Jim Adams response is in step with other establishment responses. His explanation of how rail (if done correctly) helps encourage better land use is probably correct. Of course an urban design expert is going to view transit through its land use implications. Ask a traffic engineer about transit and their response will be based on their expertise. My point is that the first urban rail investment should not be entirely about opening up future development. Even if we were to compare the Mueller Route to the Lamar/Guadalupe on future development potential this is what we would find: http://goo.gl/maps/VpdxG

    So the question really is: Why spend >$500M on a transit project just to open up future development when we could do so for free through rezoing? Mueller will eventually deserve the level of transit service that urban rail provides, but not yet.

    A RedLine Circulator, like the one currently being proposed by the Austin Transportation Dept, further subsidizes suburban commuters. We should be investing in a transit project that gives Austinites better, faster, more reliable options to getting where they need to go. For more info, check out this article: http://keepaustinwonky.wordpress.com/2013/03/07/cats-dogs/

    This discussion isn’t simply about development vs ridership (both should be considered), it’s about using transit to achieve a portfolio of realistic goals in a way that uses tax dollars in the most sensible way possible.

    • greengenuity says :

      Urban designers have been trained to look at rail development as a means of transformative land use because we’ve been forced to latch onto some measurable way of determining the economic value of transit. Sadly, the argument that transit doesn’t make money continues to persist among the public, even though it has been thoroughly cited that road infrastructure, too, is not a money generator and requires untold subsidies.

      Your point about the future development of the Mueller route vs. the L/G route is compelling for sure. And certainly the directness of the L/G route is appealing.

      I’m curious what you mean about rezoning in/around Mueller. Can you explain?

      “Mueller will eventually deserve the level of transit service that urban rail provides, but not yet.” I agree. So, how can the city and any other authorities pave the way so that rail can be instituted before the strain on other infrastructure gets too difficult or before some misstep makes rail even more challenging to build? Should the developer of a future transit community somehow be required to lay down tracks, like they would normally lay down roads (And, perhaps in place of some other required amenities)?

      Another thought: a couple friends of mine did a comparison case study between Mueller and a similar airport redevelopment project in an Austrian suburb, and that locality approached the project will the mindset that transit comes first. In fact, an image they found showed the subway line and station being built even before a single house was erected. That’s obviously a far cry from anything happening in the U.S. but maybe we should be looking at that more closely.

      Ultimately, I realize that support for rail is primarily going to come from those who would benefit from it. And, thankfully that number of beneficiaries is growing as younger people are increasingly in favor of living in less car-dependent neighborhoods. Yet, as long as you leave transit development up to voters that live in far-flung suburbs, not a single mile of track would be laid. This is the dilemma of the South.

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