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Project Connect draft plan makes premature debut

Wednesday, February 14, 2018 by Caleb Pritchard

The Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority is trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube after a draft version of its proposed Project Connect system plan found its way online Monday evening.

The plan, which features an ambitious combination of light rail, bus rapid transit, regional commuter rail, and possibly even a downtown streetcar, was presented at the quarterly meeting of the Multimodal Community Advisory Committee, the ad hoc group assembled by both Capital Metro and the Austin Transportation Department to weigh in on Project Connect and ATD’s Austin Strategic Mobility Plan.

Two members of the MCAC live-tweeted the Project Connect portion of Monday’s publicly posted briefing, broadcasting photographs of the slideshow and work packet, which included the draft map of the system plan.

“While we value them as important stakeholders and collaborators on developing the plan, we really were hoping they wouldn’t just post it all over social media,” Todd Hemingson, Capital Metro’s vice president of strategic planning and development, said. “Although in today’s modern age, it was probably unavoidable.”

The draft plan

He noted that the map – which includes a proposed light rail element along the North Lamar/Guadalupe corridor, bus rapid transit from the Austin Community College Highland Campus to downtown, another light rail line along East Riverside Drive out to the airport, and a commuter rail line connecting downtown Austin to Manor and possibly even Elgin – was intended for “internal review and discussion purposes only.”

“To some degree, the cat’s out of the bag,” Hemingson conceded before reiterating that the plan is still in draft form and will stay that way until its scheduled public unveiling at Capital Metro’s March 26 board meeting, which not coincidentally will feature the public debut of the agency’s new CEO and president, Randy Clarke.

“We want to make sure our new CEO is comfortable with the proposal and understands the basis for it,” Hemingson explained.

Agency spokesperson Amy Peck cautioned that until the March meeting, Project Connect’s draft plan is open to revisions based on ongoing public input.

One prominent avenue for that input will be at the upcoming Traffic Jam event co-hosted by Capital Metro and ATD. The third in a series of open houses designed to raise awareness of and get feedback on Project Connect and the ASMP, the Feb. 24 confab at the new Central Library will primarily focus on the latter. However, Capital Metro staff will be circulating a Project Connect survey that planners will consult as they put the final touches on the draft plan.

“It’s not so much that there would be wholesale changes, but there could be modifications,” Hemingson added. “We’re not going to suddenly say, ‘Oh, we’re going to switch off Lamar and move over to Stassney or something,’ but I think there could be tweaks like, ‘You ended this line at Point X but you really should think about extending it to Point Y,’ or things like that.”

Once the draft plan makes its debut before the board of directors, it will undergo another round of public review and input. The board is scheduled to formally approve the final recommendation in either May or June. After that milestone, Project Connect will enter its third and final phase as planners determine proper prioritization, phasing and potential funding sources for the grand vision.

The final recommendations from that process are scheduled to go before the board in September.

Throughout it all, the agency will be keeping an eye on Washington, D.C., and an increasingly unfriendly federal partner when it comes to funding local transit projects. President Donald Trump’s recent budget request slashed both Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants and the New Starts program, two key sources of money for transit agencies under the Obama administration.

“There’s no doubt if there’s no federal funding being brought to the project portfolio, that creates a bigger challenge for the overall vision of building out Project Connect,” Hemingson warned.

Photo by Tampasteve, CC BY-SA 3.0.

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