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Thursday, July 13, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

TxDOT pressures Capital Metro to act fast on I-35 transit

Time is running out for the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority to decide whether it will commit millions toward a vision that could bring dedicated transit infrastructure to I-35.

At a board of directors work session on Tuesday, Vice President of Strategic Planning and Development Todd Hemingson reported that the Texas Department of Transportation’s timeline for rebuilding the interstate from Georgetown to San Marcos requires urgent action.

“They need a decision from Capital Metro now essentially,” he insisted.

Hemingson said that ongoing discussions on the project between both entities – which began in 2011 – have resulted in a proposal whereby Capital Metro could offer TxDOT $18 million to reserve right of way on the interstate that could be used for three bus rapid transit stations to be built in the middle of the highway.

Those three stations would be near Tech Ridge Center, at Rundberg Lane and at Slaughter Lane. The bus line that would service those stations would operate in new express lanes that TxDOT is planning to add to the freeway. The stations would allow the buses to pull out of the travel lane to allow boarding and deboarding without interrupting traffic flow. The buses would also enter and exit the highway in downtown Austin, perhaps via dedicated transit ramps, and terminate in the south at a park-and-ride off State Highway 45 Southeast.

Hemingson told the board that his team originally proposed to TxDOT a “super bus rapid transit” model that would have included inline stations at 51st Street, Oltorf Street and William Cannon Drive, three roads whose intersections have seen recent infrastructure investments by the state agency.

“It was kind of met with a thud, that idea,” he reported, citing its estimated cost of $400 million, or 10 percent of the roughly $4 billion that TxDOT is planning to spend on the entire I-35 project.

But rather than move forward with a commuter-focused express service, such as those that will soon deploy on Mopac Boulevard’s upcoming express lanes, Hemingson said the I-35 vision is one of an all-day service “designed for a wide range of trip purposes.”

“One of the huge attractions for this effort is that 35 is, as best as we can tell, one of the only, if not the only place where we can get transit speed and reliability north and south through the length of the region,” he continued. “That opportunity doesn’t exist anywhere else without major expenditure.”

The estimated capital cost of the current proposal is $145 million, with a daily ridership projection between 4,000 and 8,000 trips. The annual operating cost of the route is $4.6 million.

There still remain many uncertainties about the project, several of which Hemingson addressed in his briefing, including poor pedestrian access to the inline stations, a lack of jobs, housing and other destinations around them, and the fact that moving forward now would supersede Project Connect, the planning effort that was otherwise supposed to render a verdict on the I-35 bus rapid transit proposal some time next year.

One of the leading solutions to the pedestrian access and land use issues is to run new frequent bus routes along the east-west corridors that intersect with the inline stations. Hemingson referred to this as a “ladder of connectivity.” Agency spokesperson Mariette Hummel told the Austin Monitor on Wednesday that no cost estimates for operating those new lines have been produced yet since plans are still in the preliminary phase.

As for why the board should jump the gun on Project Connect – which Capital Metro planners have declared to be a project-agnostic study of various transit investments in and around Central Austin – Hemingson explained, “Because we do think it is a rare opportunity.” That sentiment was echoed by Chair Wade Cooper, who noted that the final product of TxDOT’s I-35 work will have lasting effect for generations to come.

However, the path toward I-35 bus rapid transit is not without its obstacles. Before the briefing, eight members of the public – including four members of the Multimodal Community Advisory Committee, which is helping to guide Project Connect – addressed the board, all but one expressing skepticism for the proposal.

Longtime transit advocate Roger Baker warned that the investment could deplete scarce resources that could otherwise be used for rail along the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, a route that would likely have much higher ridership than even the best scenario envisioned for I-35 bus rapid transit.

“A big question in my own mind is to what degree Cap Metro or TxDOT or anyone is capable of projecting the suburban bus ridership on a huge and costly project like this at least a decade in advance,” Baker said.

At the end of Hemingson’s briefing, he explained that staff would like to bring a resolution to the board at its next meeting on July 31. That resolution would instruct Capital Metro CEO and President Linda Watson to negotiate an interlocal agreement with TxDOT to move forward with the planning process for the inline stations.

Hemingson offered that staff would seek two caveats from TxDOT to protect Capital Metro’s interests, the first being a request to pay the $18 million in installments over six years.

“And we would work to see if TxDOT would be open to reimbursing us if the project did not come to fruition,” he continued. “We don’t know if that’s possible at this point, but we think that would not be an unreasonable ask.”

Council Member Ann Kitchen expressed concern about that latter point, and also echoed the sentiments offered by Baker and the other public speakers. She asked staff to provide better data about the comfort levels of waiting for a bus at a station in a highway median and whether the ridership projections could be relied on.

After Hemingson offered to reach out to other agencies that operate inline stations, Kitchen replied, “I think that you might want to consider doing some kind of polling right now in this community.”

This story has been changed since publication to correct grammatical errors. Photo by Dave Worley made available through a Creative Commons license

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