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Park-and-ride plan rides again

Monday, November 13, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

Regional transportation planners have resurfaced an effort to build parking lots for suburban bus commuters that fell off the radar earlier this year.

On Wednesday, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority Board of Directors learned that the complicated funding strategy agency staff had been banking on as of January was no longer an option.

Last winter, the CTRMA sought to claim unused federal qualified energy conservation bond allocations from the state, the city of Austin, and Williamson and Travis counties. Intransigence on the part of both of the counties’ commissioners courts appears to have permanently blocked that pathway.

“Those energy bonds are basically gone. That opportunity has basically left the port,” CTRMA Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein told his board. “How we fund anything that we’d be involved with is conjecture at this point.”

The proposal to use the QEC bond to build $72 million worth of park-and-rides – eight total – disappeared after the Travis County Commissioners Court tabled the question of whether to hand over its share of the allocations in late January. Since then, however, the CTRMA, the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization have continued interagency planning efforts to locate, fund and build the facilities.

CTRMA Deputy Executive Director Jeff Dailey explained to his board that the CTRMA is now looking at as many as 22 potential sites. Each is located near entries to the agency’s existing or upcoming toll roads or managed express lanes. In order to lure potential riders, the park-and-rides cannot be too deep within the city limits of Austin, meaning that passengers would likely be coming from communities that contribute far less or nothing at all to Capital Metro’s general fund.

“Once (drivers) are within 30 minutes of their destination, they’re generally not going to want to make the transfer over to express bus,” Dailey explained.

Capital Metro currently operates commuter bus service, primarily along U.S. Highway 183 and MoPac Expressway. Today, it launches the brand-new No. 980, which will operate in the new MoPac express lanes. The route features 22 daily trips, including four from Round Rock and back. In January, the agency will reorient several of its existing routes in order to take advantage of the new express lanes and bypass the congestion that has historically ensnared both buses and cars.

“One of the things that you see in various places of the nation, when you have express lanes and you plug in the express buses, the ridership goes up significantly,” Dailey told the board. “It opens up capacity to the roadway and provides a good low-cost ride for people.”

Dailey cited express lanes in the Atlanta metropolitan area. He claimed that during peak hours, express buses operating in toll lanes constitute 2 percent of vehicular traffic but 26 percent of roadway users.

“I know that Capital Metro is going to make this one of their major initiatives as part of Project Connect to take advantage of our corridors to really make this express bus service successful,” Dailey said, referring to the high-capacity transit planning effort currently underway.

Project Connect’s first phase identified several commuter corridors that could be targeted for investments. Those include several roadways on which CTRMA has existing toll facilities or plans to build future ones.

Board Member Nikelle Meade wondered whether the interagency park-and-ride effort should wait for Project Connect to produce its recommended regional vision next fall before continuing to study the 22 potential park-and-ride locations.

Javier Arguello, Capital Metro’s long range planning director, waved aside her concerns.

“There are some areas of the region where we know actually what’s going to happen,” he said, citing MoPac south of Lady Bird Lake, a stretch where the CTRMA is currently planning to install new express lanes. “There are other areas of the region where we are just beginning the planning and where we will probably have to wait just a little bit longer to see what the community would like to see and then move forward.”

The park-and-ride planning effort has no specific timeline and hinges on the CTRMA being able to locate and potentially acquire suitable sites. Nonetheless, Arguello sounded optimistic and revealed that Capital Metro is so excited about the synergies made possible by the express lanes that its planners are already considering how to brace for an influx of new passengers.

“The express lanes are going to make the express service of Capital Metro so successful that it’s going to transform how this community thinks about high-capacity transit,” he promised.

Photo by Chris Morgan licensed for reuse under Creative Commons.

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