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Solving regional affordability problems will require addressing transportation costs

Monday, November 26, 2018 by Ryan Thornton

Decreasing affordability in Austin and the surrounding area is primarily tied to a shortage of housing options coupled with rising property taxes. But the region’s lack of transportation options is the source of another significant, though less recognized, financial burden on residents.

That was the message from Dave Couch, the Project Connect program manager, as he briefed the Regional Affordability Committee on the evolving vision for Project Connect on Monday, Nov. 19.

Couch told the committee that, according to recent studies, average annual costs of car ownership amounts to $12,191 compared to the $1,155 annual expense of a Capital Metro Commuter Pass and the $495 annual cost of the monthly Local Pass. The point of Project Connect, Couch explained, is to provide transportation options to as many people as possible at the regional scale and alleviate transportation expenses for people well beyond the city core.

Project Connect’s vision embraces a variety of strategies, including adding Park and Ride locations in the suburbs of Austin and introducing neighborhood circulators to connect people to transit stops. The vision plan also includes two high-capacity corridors with dedicated pathways along North Lamar/Guadalupe to South Congress and the Riverside Corridor, a Green Line commuter rail running east to Manor and regional express routes connecting various cities as far from Central Austin as Georgetown and Bastrop.

According to Couch, prioritizing the surrounding region in conjunction with the city core is essential to saving people money on transportation. “That gives people the opportunity to switch away from the higher costs of operating in a single car to be able to go ahead to take the commuter service,” said Couch.

U.S. Census Bureau 2017 estimates show that 74 percent of Austin workers still regularly commute alone in their cars, and data from 2014 shows that a significant number of these workers live as far away as San Antonio, including 5,000-10,000 commuters from the Georgetown area and 2,000-5,000 from the Bastrop area.

In contrast, estimates from 2017 show 47 percent of Seattle and 68 percent of Denver workers commute alone by car.

Council Member Delia Garza expressed optimism that, with enough public involvement and support, transportation patterns and expenses can be changed for the better. While the housing crisis is a nationwide problem, Garza said it is possible to remove a great expense from people’s budgets by improving our public transit system. “I appreciate you putting transit and housing together again because there’s only so many levers you can pull, especially as an elected official,” Garza told Couch.

Capital Metro is inviting public feedback about the Project Connect vision map in a string of community conversations to be held throughout Austin. A District 2 community conversation is scheduled for Monday, Nov. 26, 7-9 p.m. at the Southeast Branch Library, and a combined community conversation for Districts 6 and 10 takes place Wednesday, Nov. 28, 6-8 p.m. at the Jewish Community Center, 7300 Hart Lane. A joint City Council and Capital Metro Board of Directors Project Connect work session will take place Wednesday from noon to 3 p.m. in Ballroom C of the Austin Convention Center. See the entire list of community conversations on the Capital Metro website.

“The objective is to get as much possible community input – this has to be a program that comes from the desires of the community so that we’re ensuring that it is providing what they desire, what they need. It can’t be a top-down solution; those have been found historically not to work,” said Couch.

The Project Connect vision plan is scheduled for adoption by the Capital Metro Board of Directors during a noon meeting Monday, Dec. 17, at Capital Metro, 2910 E. Fifth St. The meeting will be open to the public and streamed live on ATXN.

Map image courtesy of Capital Metro.

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