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Thursday, November 13, 2014 by Michael Kanin

Martinez to pitch bus rapid transit investments

City Council Member and Austin mayoral candidate Mike Martinez is looking to pitch multiple bus rapid transit lines as the next major transportation investment for the area.

In an interview with the Monitor, Martinez nodded to the work done by Project Connect – efforts that led to a $600 million rail bond question that was defeated at the ballot Nov. 4. In addition, if he can get the support, he would like to try a pilot program that would make bus ridership free for a year.

“The bottom line is Prop 1 failed, and citizens spoke loud and clear on rail,” Martinez said. “So I think it’s time we embrace bus service and take it to a whole new level. We have to become the best bus-serviced city in the entire country.”

Martinez’s plan would put “five or six more” bus rapid transit lines, called BRTs, along key corridors in the region. He put the cost of each line at roughly $30 million, a figure based on two bus rapid transit lines already in operation. That could bring the total price tag of the project to between $150 million and $180 million, depending on the number of routes. He added that federal matching dollars accounted for two-thirds of the total costs of the initial BRT routes.

“I think citizens would be more supportive of it simply because it’s much more affordable compared to what was on the ballot measure for a 9 1/2 mile rail system,” Martinez said. “If you demonstrate to them a 60-, 80-mile BRT system for a fraction of the cost — it’s not cheap, but comparatively [inexpensive]. If we’re able to replicate that five or six more times throughout Austin east and west, northwest, southwest, I think we truly start becoming that transit-system city that we want to be.”

“When you look at the success we’ve had so far with bus rapid transit – we had a million passenger trips … by the end of August – you can clearly see that people are buying into it; the transit corridors are working,” he continued. “But two routes aren’t enough.”

Martinez specifically named a possible route that would take a new BRT project “from the urban core, out Riverside Drive, all the way to Bergstrom International Airport.” That route would mirror one arm of the most recent rail pitch.

“East Seventh Street is another corridor,” he continued. “We need the east-west connections.”

Martinez also suggested that he would look for private support that might offset fare box revenues otherwise required to fund the venture. He said that he believes a $15 million commitment (equal, he said, to the necessary fare box recovery rate) from such entities could allow for a pilot year’s worth of free bus rides for the local population. That, he argued, might provide a substantial amount of traffic relief, while also increasing ridership numbers.

“As [the private sector] stepped up to help us try and pass urban rail — they invested heavily in the campaign, they saw that urban rail could be great for Austin — I would hope [they] would embrace bus rapid transit to the same extent, because it can be just as effective, if not more so, and less expensive than rail,” Martinez said.

Though he noted that the idea was not necessarily sustainable, Martinez said he believes the pilot could “double our ridership in one calendar year.”

“It could be sustainable if the local economy and the private sector continue to step up on an ongoing basis and help us offset the cost of our fare box recovery,” he continued. “If we can demonstrate that we can substantially increase ridership and have a tremendous impact on traffic congestion and public transportation, would it be worth it, in the end?”

Indeed, Martinez framed the free-ride idea in terms of taking cars off local roads. “If they don’t see the benefit … they won’t reinvest,” he said. “If they see the benefit, and if ridership jumps from 30 million to 50 million or 60 million trips in a year, now we’re talking game-changer.”

Martinez said he would pursue these ideas regardless of the outcome of the Dec. 16 runoff election. He and attorney Steve Adler are vying to become the City of Austin’s next mayor.

When asked, Martinez later added via email that he will have something “to begin the process of expanding our service via fixed route and BRT” on Capital Metro’s December agenda.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT): Bus Rapid Transit is a high-capacity transit utilizing buses. Some systems have dedicated traffic lanes.

Capital Metro: The city’s urban transportation system.

November 2014 Transportation Bond: Austin City Council members approved a $1 billion mobility bond question for the city's November 2014 elections on Aug. 7, 2014. In it, the city asks for $600 million in funding for a new urban rail system and promised to find an additional $400 million for major road improvements.

Project Connect: This project brought together a series of Central Texas transportation agencies looking to build high-capacity transit options in the region in the wake of CAMPO's 2035 regional transportation plan. The City of Austin's much-discussed 2014 Urban Rail plan was part of Project Connect's efforts.

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