Creating connected communities with Austin Transit Partnership’s Peter Mullan

We spoke with Peter Mullan, chief of architecture and urban design at Austin Transit Partnership, to fill us in on the next steps for Austin’s light rail system.

A rendering showing street-level rail cars moving through downtown.

An artist rendering of 3rd Street and San Jacinto Boulevard.

Rendering via Austin Transit Partnership

After more than a month of gathering community feedback on five potential light rail plans, the Austin Transit Partnership is preparing to recommend one for the first phase of light rail implementation.

The updated light rail plans are a portion of Project Connect, a multi-billion dollar overhaul of Austin’s public transit system approved by voters in 2020. The recommended plan will make up the core of Austin’s urban transit fabric.

We spoke with Peter Mullan, ATP’s chief of architecture and urban design, to learn more about the challenges of creating transit in the city of Austin.

Editor’s note: this interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

How has the plan for Austin’s light rails changed between when residents voted for Project Connect in 2020 and now?

This is a process of ongoing development of design and when we think about what was in the vote, it was a vision about expanding our transit network to create certain key outcomes, which is, how do we actually make our community more connected? If you think about it, that’s what the vision for Project Connect that we all voted on was seeking to achieve.

Right now, we’re talking about different options for the first phase of the light rail implementation. The core system that we’re proposing is really about [answering] the same question: how do we deliver on those outcomes?

We spent a bunch of time thinking about how to get through downtown in a way that that delivers the most value to the customer. Previously, we were thinking about doing a lot of that underground because certainly, being underground enables you to avoid any conflicts with what’s happening on the streets. But we’ve also recognized the cost of doing that is really significant.

One of the things we’ve learned is there are pros and cons and trade offs to each [plan]. This is part of the ongoing design process, and we’re always looking for opportunities to improve the system and make it more effective.

What factors were prioritized during this most recent redesign?

We have an incredibly vibrant city and it’s a challenge to fit this new infrastructure into it. In March, we had an open house at the library where we presented the five options for what the first phase of light rail would look like.

We’re always trying to remember the north star right now, why we’re building this transit infrastructure in the first place. It’s about connecting people to places they want to go and places they need to go as part of their daily lives. I think also what we found in our conversations with the community is that’s what they prioritize as well. We’re really trying to evaluate those kinds of options from that perspective.

The 38th to Yellow Jacket line, which travels from 38th Street, to Oltorf, to Yellow Jacket Lane.

The Downtown Austin Alliance revealed that of the five, its top choice is the 38th Street to Yellow Jacket line, with a few recommendations.

Graphic via the Austin Transit Partnership

What are some of the challenges that you have come through in the process of redesign?

One is the inner city, especially in the core, has been largely built out. The challenge is space and making sure we find enough space in the right space to thread this rail network into the city.

The second, we’ve got to be mindful that trains like to be on flat surfaces. They don’t really like hills. So we’re always trying to find a path. The pathway that was identified in the vote is relatively gentle in terms of navigating the topography of the city.

Every challenge is an opportunity. I would say these are challenges, but really exciting possibilities for Austin. How do we build this in a way that really speaks to this place? We’re doing a lot of research right now to identify those kinds of key principles or characteristics that we can design to make this really feel like it belongs here.

Once this line is built out, is there another phase that goes into effect?

One of the things in common between all of our options is that they’re all expandable and it’s certainly our intention to build out the full visions that everybody voted on. At some point, before we finish the first phase, we’ll start planning for the next phase. We’re going to be building the light rail for a long time to make sure that we’re serving the community as best we can.

Is it a challenge for Austin Transit Partnership to get people to take transit instead of their car?

I think that’s that’s a crucial question. We want to create a system that people will want to use and will use. The whole reason for doing this is to build a stronger culture of transit in our city, and we know that long term, we’ve got to move more people out of their cars into other modes of transportation, which includes walking cycling, and other micromobility. Transit is going to be a big part of achieving goals of the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan, which calls for moving to a 50/50 mode share between single occupancy vehicles and other forms of transit.

So how do we do that? We have to build a culture of transit. We make the system as easy and attractive to use as possible and make it work really well.

ATX_APTevent

The Austin Transit Partnership collected feedback from over 8,000 residents over the course of dozens of in-person and vitual events.

Photo courtesy Austin Transit Partnership

What does the Austin Transit Partnership need from Austinites right now?

We need the community to continue to be engaged. The numbers around our engagement have been phenomenal ... which again, shows that people are really hungry, and they want to be involved, and they want to contribute. And we’re going to continue to need that over the long haul. This is a marathon. This is not a sprint. We need to continue for the public to be engaged, because that’s going to make the system better.

What message do you have for the people who are ready to take public transit now?

We’re gonna work as diligently and as focused as we can to deliver light rail for the public, as soon as we can. We’re not going to rush it. We can’t rush it when we’ve got to get it right.

The work we’re doing right now, I think it’s going to actually save us time for the long term because we’re really getting aligned with our budget, and we’re getting it right with the community. That’s gonna serve as well going forward. So we’re gonna be diligent, we’re going to be thorough, we’re going to be thoughtful, but we’re also gonna be diligent about delivering this in an efficient way. We want the public to stay engaged and stay involved — this is the beginning, not the end.

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