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CTRMA advances park-and-ride plan

Thursday, December 1, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority is charting a path pocked with bureaucracy toward a set of brand new park-and-rides along its toll roads and express lanes.

On Tuesday, the agency’s board of directors gave staff the green light to apply to a state agency for unused Qualified Energy Conservation bonds allocated by the federal government.

The plan also hinges on convincing the city of Austin, Williamson County and Travis County to give up millions of dollars in their share of the allocations. Austin currently lays claim to $7.9 million worth of the bonds, while Travis’ and Williamson’s cuts are $2.6 million and $3.8 million, respectively.

“We’ve had some initial discussions with each of them, and they’re open to doing this – to pool these things,” CTRMA Deputy Executive Director Jeff Dailey told the board. “There’s currently not another use that they have in their plans for these funds.”

The commissioners courts in both counties could consider waiving their allocations by mid-December. A top aide to Mayor Steve Adler said that city officials are still vetting the CTRMA’s request but added that City Council “could take action soon.”

In the meantime, CTRMA Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein impressed on the board the urgency to submit the application to the Texas Bond Review Board before the 85th Texas Legislature kicks off in January.

“One of the reasons this comes forward now is we don’t know how long these QEC bonds are going to be available,” Heiligenstein said. “Without the state allocation, we’re sunk.”

The race against the clock began in July, when the CTRMA ratified a partnership with the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization and the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority to develop more park-and-rides in order to facilitate increased transit use among suburban commuters.

The eight new park-and-rides under consideration for QEC bond funding would be located along the MoPac Expressway, U.S. Highway 183, U.S. Highway 290, and at State Highway 130 and State Highway 71.

The typical park-and-ride facility is 15 acres and contains 750 parking spaces, Dailey said.

The estimated cost of each of the proposed park-and-rides ranges from $2 million to $17 million, and the projected price tag for all eight totals $72.3 million. That amount exceeds the QEC bond allocation the CTRMA is pursuing.

If all goes according to plan – and the counties and the city waive their shares and the Texas Bond Review Board OKs its remaining $38 million in unallocated bonds – the CTRMA would be able to issue only $52 million in bonds.

Dailey explained to the board, “We need to continue to work with Capital Metro and CAMPO to refine our cost estimates and our priorities to fit within what we can do.” He said those discussions would take place over the next several months.

Capital Metro spokeswoman Amy Peck told the Austin Monitor that the costs could be kept down through simple negation. “All of the proposed park-and-rides are not expected to be built, but instead are proposed for additional analyses to see which ones could be built,” she said.

Board Member Nikelle Meade pondered whether Capital Metro had committed to helping the authority pay back any of the principal of the bond. Dailey replied that those discussions are still ongoing as well. He added that the transit agency would spend $3 million to $5 million on new buses to connect the park-and-rides to downtown for an expected $16 million in annual operating costs.

Peck told the Monitor that Dailey cited the correct cost for the new buses, but she could not confirm his figure for operating expenses.

Peck also added that Capital Metro has no plans to raise revenue through parking fees at the park-and-rides. “No transit agency in Texas charges for its park-and-rides. Additional costs beyond the transit fare typically stifle ridership,” she said.

The multiagency investment to provide new infrastructure – be it park-and-rides or shared express lanes – for Capital Metro’s ExpressBus constitutes a massive investment in what currently claims the lowest ridership among the agency’s fixed-route options. Capital Metro’s Fiscal Year 2016-2017 budget predicts 523,914 rides on ExpressBus – less than two-thirds of the next lowest service, the one-route MetroRail. Meanwhile, MetroBus and MetroRapid are expected to provide more than 24 million rides next year.

Beyond the eight park-and-rides under consideration for QEC bond funding, the CTRMA is also considering three others, including one in Dripping Springs and one in Round Rock, both cities that are not part of Capital Metro’s service area. However, the latter – proposed to be located at Dell Diamond’s existing parking lot – could be serviced by the transit agency under a partnership currently being negotiated with the city of Round Rock. The basic terms would require the city to cover costs of all transit operations in its borders, while Capital Metro would pick up the costs within its service area.

Photo by Peter Dutton made available through a Creative Commons license.

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