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TxDOT document reveals limp projections for I-35 bus plan

Friday, August 11, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

The Texas Department of Transportation has projected less than stellar ridership numbers for a proposed enhanced bus line on I-35, but a top Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority official says he isn’t losing any sleep over it.

On Wednesday, Capital Metro Vice President of Strategic Planning and Development Todd Hemingson unloaded on the prediction that the line would only see 3,400 riders per day by 2040.

“Honestly, I don’t think any of them are accurate because the assumptions in the travel demand model, which is known to be bad at predicting transit ridership, are so crude,” Hemingson told the Austin Monitor.

The estimate was included in documents related to a joint meeting last year between TxDOT, Capital Metro and the engineering firm HNTB. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the inclusion of a transit component to TxDOT’s planned $4.5 billion overhaul of I-35 in the region.

TxDOT modeled three scenarios featuring routes of different lengths along the freeway, the longest stretching from Georgetown down to San Marcos. Each scenario envisions buses operating in express lanes in the middle of the highway and making stops both off I-35 and at several inline stations built into the median.

The scenario with the highest projected ridership – 3,400 trips in a 24-hour period – matches up perfectly with the concept currently under discussion between both agencies. It would start at Tech Ridge and run down to State Highway 45 Southeast, servicing inline stations at Rundberg Lane and Slaughter Lane, and stopping through downtown Austin in between.

Measured against Capital Metro’s spring 2017 ridership data, that route’s ridership would make it the agency’s ninth most popular route, ahead of the No. 331 but behind the No. 3 (which splits its route with the No. 803 MetroRapid).

Hemingson maintained that the travel demand model used by TxDOT and developed by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization is geared toward automobile movement and does not take into account potential changes in land use.

“It kind of assumes one growth pattern and there’s no feedback loop to say if you put high-capacity transit in, you’re going to change the land use. It’s not necessarily going to be huge, but by 2040 … then you could really see big changes,” he said.

Whether relatively modest transit investments at a pair of intersections along a limited access freeway that handles hundreds of thousands of cars per day could create transit-friendly land use patterns remains to be seen, but the proposition has helped make Capital Metro’s nascent plans for I-35 a lightning rod in its ongoing high-capacity transit planning process known as Project Connect.

That effort, aimed at determining the where, what and how of future high-capacity transit investments to get people into, out of and around Austin’s urban core, officially entered its second phase last month. After advancing a selection of the city’s most prominent corridors – of which I-35 was one – planners are now figuring out which transit modes are most appropriate for each.

At Capital Metro’s Traffic Jam a la Mode, a public outreach event at Huston-Tillotson University in July that marked the official beginning of Project Connect Phase 2, a small band of activists, including longtime transit advocates Lyndon Henry, Dave Dobbs and Roger Baker, handed out flyers arguing against the I-35 bus proposal.

The flyer featured a graphic representing a light rail alternative that would run from Tech Ridge Center to Southpark Meadows along North Lamar Boulevard, Guadalupe Street and South Congress Avenue, essentially the same path as the current No. 801 MetroRapid line.

“Such a route could plausibly have a potential of attracting ridership of 100,000 a day,” it conjectures.

Scott Morris of the Central Austin Community Development Corporation, a group that has long advocated for light rail on the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, told the Monitor that the I-35 project would gobble up the transit agency’s capital reserves.

“As we have seen with the execution of large capital projects nationwide, I-35 will be all the agency can focus on and become its theme for a decade or more. The people of Austin need an agency to be focused on building a meaningful and cost-effective capital investment that they want and support,” said Morris.

Project Connect Phase 2 is expected to wrap up next spring, and the entire process itself is scheduled to be finished in just over a year. However, TxDOT has pressured Capital Metro to make a decision soon on whether it is willing to spend $18 million to reserve right of way on I-35 for the inline stations. The board of directors will take up that vote in September, drawing outcry from watchers who argue that the decision would preempt the Project Connect process.

Baker, the transit activist, told the Monitor, “In fact, the purpose of the Project Connect planning process now underway is supposed to be to tell us whether projects like this make good sense. One thing we need to understand is I-35 is a federally funded road which is legally obliged to allow full bus access, and I’m fine with that.”

However, the complaints of Baker and other activists, like TxDOT’s projections, have not convinced Capital Metro staff to try to derail the interlocal agreement with the state agency.

“We acknowledge that in a perfect world we’d rather get through Project Connect so that we could further our evaluation of 35 in the context of the bigger picture,” Hemingson said. “Our discussion with TxDOT was they needed to know sooner rather than later. So, yeah, it’s not perfect.”

He added, “This is the way it works in the real world.”

Photo by Todd Morris made available through a Creative Commons license.

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