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Capital Metro no longer counting on ambitious I-35 bus plan

Friday, November 3, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

The Texas Department of Transportation’s big new plans for Interstate 35 through Austin may be the end of the road for the local transit agency’s hopes for bus rapid transit on the highway.

“We don’t know for sure at this point, but our working assumption is that, given the new proposed design, there would not be room for inline stations,” Todd Hemingson, the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s vice president of strategic planning and development, told the Austin Monitor on Thursday afternoon.

The agency had previously been working with TxDOT on a plan to add three bus stations inside the median of I-35 at Tech Ridge Center, Rundberg Lane, and Slaughter Lane. The envisioned route would have also stopped in downtown Austin and had its southern terminus at State Highway 45 Southeast.

But that was when TxDOT was only counting on a $4 billion plan to add a single managed toll lane in each direction of the freeway. On Monday, state Sen. Kirk Watson revealed a revised vision dubbed “Capital Express” that features two new toll lanes in each direction, along with the demolition of the two upper decks in Central Austin. The new estimated cost of the project is now at $8 billion.

Capital Metro’s board of directors was set to vote in September on an $18 million commitment to TxDOT to reserve the right of way for the stations while the two agencies continued joint planning efforts. The estimated cost of the BRT project stood at $400 million.

Critics panned the scheduled board vote as preempting the ongoing Project Connect process, which is considering options for viable high-capacity transit projects including I-35 BRT. Project Connect is still in its second phase and isn’t expected to make specific project recommendations until next spring.

Ultimately, the board never even got to discuss the proposed resolution, let alone take a vote on it. Hemingson explained that before the September board meeting, TxDOT’s intent to revise its I-35 vision put the agency’s financial commitment in a holding pattern.

“We had gotten wind that there were some high-level discussions underway so we didn’t put it on the agenda because we didn’t have a complete set of information to give the board,” he revealed.

While I-35 BRT’s outlook is uncertain at best, transit service will remain key to TxDOT’s efforts, Watson insisted on Monday, a position that Hemingson said the agency found “encouraging.”

The I-35 BRT proposal was envisioned as an all-week, high-frequency route that could be used for multiple purposes. If the inline stations and the speed advantages they could provide are indeed off the table, the agency will opt for a different strategy as the Project Connect process continues.

“We would likely focus on commuter-type service on I-35,” Hemingson said. “Which points to other corridors for serving that function of a regional spine. And obviously rising to the top in a hurry would probably be Lamar-Guadalupe-South Congress.”

One group hailing the apparent demise of I-35 BRT is the transit-supportive group AURA. The nonprofit had previously criticized the planned investments along an intensely pedestrian-hostile freeway.

In an email, AURA Board President Susan Somers wrote of I-35, “It is not the right location for a high frequency transit spine. On the other hand, express bus in the managed lanes could be a positive step for the region.”

A new timeline for the Capital Express project is expected to be released later this month. Hemingson said more detailed schematics revealing the extent of the planned right of way use will likely come out early next year.

This story has been updated to correct a quote.

Photo by Matthew Rutledge made available through a Creative Commons license.

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