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Project Connect goes citywide

Monday, May 15, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

Three years after a proposal to lay 9.5 miles of light rail across a sliver of Austin went down in flames, Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority planners are broadening their horizons.

On Friday, the agency’s board of directors heard the preliminary results of the first phase of the rebooted Project Connect effort, findings that revealed a citywide approach to the next batch of high-capacity transit investments.

Long Range Planning Director Javier Arguello told the board members that his team combed through stacks of previous local transportation planning studies to suss out two separate “buckets” of corridors worthy of new investments and existing transit routes and hubs that merit enhancements.

“It is our responsibility to move forward, stop the planning, and start implementation,” he said.

The board – which was meeting in the joint form of its two committees – was presented with a map of the corridors that include many of the city’s busiest arteries, from I-35 to Guadalupe Street and North Lamar Boulevard. Also flagged for future investments are MetroRail’s Red Line from downtown to Leander as well as the proposed Green Line that would connect Austin to Manor.

The renewed Project Connect effort is focusing on new transit investments to help Austin metro area residents get into, around and out of the urban core, which is mostly defined as the combined belt of Mopac Boulevard, U.S. Highway 183 and State Highway 71.

Despite that, City Council members Ann Kitchen and Delia Garza expressed frustration that the identified investment corridors did not reach into low-density sections of the city in Southeast Austin.

Arguello pointed out that Project Connect’s primary focus is on bolstering the highest performing transit corridors in Central Austin and should be considered in the context of other initiatives such as Connections 2025, Capital Metro’s systemwide improvements to its bread and butter bus lines.

“The existing bus network is not going to disappear,” Arguello told the Austin Monitor. “It may be redefined better to complement the high capacity transit investments so that everything works as a system.”

The full board will officially weigh the phase one findings at its June meeting. The second phase of Project Connect will analyze potential modes of transit on the identified corridors, a prospect that so far agnostically includes everything from light rail to aerial gondolas. That process is expected to be finished by March 2018.

Arguello stressed that the phase one results are still thoroughly preliminary and subject to change, based on last-minute public feedback. The team will conduct several more outreach efforts as well as touch base with partner agencies such as the Austin Transportation Department and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority.

Echoing the apocalyptic slogan of the 2014 light rail proposal, “Rail or fail,” Arguello told the Monitor that this latest iteration of Project Connect is a make it or break it moment in local mobility. “We don’t have any other chance,” he said. “This is it. We have to move forward.”

Video still courtesy of Project Connect, via Vimeo.

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