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Project Connect advances despite lingering concerns over key details

Tuesday, June 27, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

The Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Board of Directors on Monday gave its blessing to the handful of staff-curated corridors that will be studied for potential high-capacity transit investments.

The 6-0 vote, with Council Member Delia Garza and fellow Board Member Terry Mitchell absent from the meeting, provided Project Connect with clearance to advance to the second of three phases that will ultimately produce a blueprint for potentially transformative transit infrastructure.

The vote was largely an endorsement of staff recommendations that were presented to a joint meeting of the board’s two committees last month. At that meeting, the board members learned of the various investment corridors and enhancement projects that Project Connect’s planners determined are worth investigating further during the initiative’s second phase, which will focus on modes, alignments and station locations.

The investment corridors were separated into three categories: Commuter, Connector and Circulator. The Commuter corridors include I-35, MetroRail’s Red Line and the proposed MetroRail Green Line from downtown Austin to Elgin. The Connector corridors feature major central city streets such as North Lamar Boulevard and Guadalupe Street; Airport Boulevard, Red River Street and Trinity Street; Riverside Drive; and South Lamar Boulevard.

Two members of the Multimodal Community Advisory Committee, the group of residents looking over the shoulders of Project Connect’s planners, showed up to Monday’s meeting to urge the board to include two streets that did not make the initial cut.

Jay Crossley, executive director of the new nonprofit think tank Farm&City, conceded to the board that both Oltorf Street and Pleasant Valley Road did not fare as well as other corridors such as Guadalupe-Lamar when analyzed for potential ridership. However, he said, they both ranked high when looked at through the lens of equity.

“More people of color, low-income people and car-free households live within walking distance of these proposed transit investments than any other that was considered,” Crossley said.

Susan Somers, AURA board president, echoed Crossley’s argument and reminded the board that adding Oltorf and Pleasant Valley to the phase two study does not commit the agency to future investments on those roads. She also raised concerns about moves that appear to make a proposed bus rapid transit system on I-35 a predetermined outcome of the Project Connect process.

The board’s Operations, Planning and Safety Committee had been scheduled earlier this month to discuss a draft interlocal agreement with the Texas Department of Transportation to explore options for potential bus rapid transit stations on I-35 right-of-way. However, that meeting was canceled and the item will be taken up at a future meeting. In the meantime, Capital Metro officials say the draft version of the interlocal agreement is still incomplete.

“AURA has long been a voice for data-driven transit, and I certainly hope we’ll consider really waiting and looking at the data to see what really are the best routes before we commit ourselves to a project like I-35 bus rapid transit,” Somers told the board.

That concern appeared to make less of an impact on the board than the calls to advance Oltorf and Pleasant Valley to the next phase. Council Member Ann Kitchen motioned to approve the staff recommendations but also added language to include the two Southeast Austin corridors.

Todd Hemingson, Capital Metro’s vice president of strategic planning and development, expressed mild anxiety at the potential “slippery slope” of expanding the scope of the study, but ultimately allowed that the two new additions would not overload the planning team.

“If it were 10 more, my hair might fall out or something,” he joked.

After the board approved Kitchen’s motion, Hemingson told reporters that the agency has been talking with TxDOT for five years about the I-35 bus rapid transit plan. The department is planning a $4 billion overhaul of the highway and appears to be open to the agency’s insistence that the project include some dedicated allowance for transit. The formative vision for the bus rapid transit system includes a handful of stations built on bus-only lanes in the median of the interstate. Those stations, Hemingson said, would be paired with frequent-service bus routes on intersecting east-west corridors.

“We’re not premising the ridership potential on people bringing themselves to a stop in the middle of I-35 by foot. Some people might do that, but we acknowledge that that’s pretty hostile as it exists today,” Hemingson said.

The initial ridership projects for the proposed route between Tech Ridge Boulevard in North Austin to State Highway 45 in South Austin is between 4,000 to 6,000 trips per day.

Hemingson also said that the agency has balked at TxDOT’s original proposal, which would require Capital Metro to fork over $123.5 million to cover the entire cost of the transit infrastructure, including bus-only ramps in downtown Austin. Instead, the agency’s counter-offer is to cough up approximately $18 million and search out the remainder from regional partners such as the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, the city of Austin and the federal government. If that funding fails to appear, Capital Metro would likely walk away from the project.

Each of the other corridors that advanced to the second phase of Project Connect will now undergo rigorous analysis until next April. Hemingson maintained that even the Green Line, an existing freight rail corridor whose mode is all but predetermined, might not make the final cut. As for the inner city corridors – including the popular Guadalupe-North Lamar alignment that light rail supporters have long coveted – nothing is guaranteed and all relevant variables will be weighed, Hemingson said.

“Part of getting into phase two, and even further into some preliminary engineering, is to be able to answer those very detailed questions,” he explained. “What exactly does the alignment look like and what is the impact on auto travelers?”

This story has been changed since publication to clarify how the Pleasant Valley corridor study fared in relation to other corridors.

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