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Project Connect’s big hopes hinge on small investment

Tuesday, April 17, 2018 by Caleb Pritchard

Project Connect’s path to an estimated $8 billion worth of high-capacity transit investments could be washed out if City Council and Austin voters don’t greenlight a $15 million installment this year, according to the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s director of long range planning.

Javier Arguello told the Urban Transportation Commission on Monday night that the agency needs that money to fund preliminary engineering and environmental analysis work on specific corridors identified in the recently unveiled Project Connect system plan.

Those corridors will be determined during the third and final phase of the planning process, which kicked off last month.

“The worst thing that could happen with Project Connect is that we complete this phase, we have a priority of projects set, and we don’t have the money to move forward with preliminary engineering,” Arguello told the commission.

Capital Metro’s board of directors, which includes three members of City Council, passed a resolution in March authorizing agency CEO Randy Clarke to request that the city include the $15 million as part of a larger bond package currently undergoing assembly for a likely November vote. If that effort is successful and voters approve the money, the agency will also contribute $5 million from its own budget to fund the engineering and environmental work.

During that process, Arguello and his team will begin to determine definitive modes of transportation that would be proposed for the corridors. However, that work will be informed by technical analysis that has already been undertaken. As an example, Arguello cited the proposed Orange Line corridor that runs from North Lamar Boulevard down Guadalupe Street to its terminus at Republic Square Park.

Arguello offered as a “conservative estimate” a daily ridership of 30,000 trips on that line, which is more than twice the ridership of the Nos. 1 and 801 buses that cover that corridor and also stretch all the way down South Congress Avenue.

Those numbers narrow down the potential technologies that could provide such a high-capacity service.

“With the systems as we know them today, that is a technology that tends to be closer to a light rail system,” Arguello said. Nonetheless, he allowed that the preliminary engineering phase would be open to potentially emerging technologies such as autonomous buses that could be linked together to form rubber-wheeled trains.

The agency is also working with Travis County to secure a financial partnership on preliminary engineering for the Green Line commuter rail that would stretch from downtown Austin to Manor and potentially to Elgin.

Meanwhile, Project Connect planners are also using the third phase of the process to determine funding strategies for the entire plan. Initial estimates predict the work could cost as much as $8 billion over 20 to 30 years. That sum is equal to the rough cost envisioned for the most recent plans to rebuild Interstate 35, plans that are currently shelved due to concerns over tolling.

Arguello told the UTC that though the Project Connect price tag might seem steep, it should be considered in the context of Austin’s public transit shortcomings.

“I’m sorry, but we are behind,” he said. “We are behind San Antonio, we are behind Houston, we are behind El Paso. In cities in Texas, we are last when it comes to transit. So it’s going to cost a lot of money to catch up, there’s no question about it.”

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