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Weeks before Project Connect vote, city talks community engagement

Thursday, November 29, 2018 by Ryan Thornton

The Dec. 17 Capital Metro Board of Directors vote on the Project Connect vision plan is quickly approaching. Austin residents are being asked by the transportation agency and City Council representatives to take the time this holiday season to attend and participate in community conversations regarding their specific transportation needs. As new public discussion dates and times are being added to the calendar on a regular basis, some Austin districts are reporting big turnouts while others are struggling to get the word out with such short notice.

In the middle of a week with two of those community conversations as well as a citywide event on Saturday Tuesday, Dec. 9, the Capital Metro Board of Directors sat around the dais with City Council Wednesday afternoon to reflect on the public engagement process up to this point and define what effective community engagement looks like in relation to the controversial and ambiguous Project Connect vision plan. The dais heard from Capital Metro and Austin Transportation Department representatives about where Project Connect is now and how the various organizations involved in Austin’s transportation future may each engage the public in the remaining time before and after the Dec. 17 vote.

Since the present incarnation of Project Connect went public in 2016, wounds of past transit failures and unprecedented traffic congestion in Austin have contributed to a sense of urgency about quality transit. With two years of planning and discontinuous public involvement behind it, the central question for Project Connect is still how to prepare for the ballot in 2020 while staying flexible enough to properly engage the diverse needs of Austin residents and make necessary changes based on those discussions.

Capital Metro is moving too fast for some Council members, who claim that hosting a string of community conversations at short notice only weeks before a major vote is effectively an empty gesture to their constituents. Much of the frustration currently stems from a lack of collective understanding around how permanent the proposed vision plan will be following Dec. 17. For the sake of clarity, Capital Metro CEO Randy Clarke reassured the dais that the map adopted Dec. 17 is not expected to be a final decision. Nevertheless, Wade Cooper, chair of the Capital Metro Board of Directors, strongly emphasized the need to keep the 2020 ballot in mind and not allow too many specific details to get in the way of that ultimate goal.

A primary concern for Council members Alison Alter of District 10 and Ora Houston of District 1 is that the Project Connect vision plan does not seem to prioritize residents in their districts. Alter questioned holding community conversations on Project Connect in District 10 where residents will be charged with sharing the cost of a high-capacity transportation system they ultimately may not be able to access without a car.

In District 1, Houston expressed confusion at the fact that an original map of Project Connect had marked FM 969 – which feeds into East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard – as a high-capacity corridor, yet it has disappeared from today’s vision plan. “In the city of Austin we say congestion is a major problem and we need to get people out of single-occupancy cars, but yet here’s this huge corridor that has over 300,000 trips per day coming in and out of the city and it’s not here,” Houston said.

In support of Houston, Council members Ann Kitchen and Leslie Pool and Capital Metro Board Member Jeff Travillion each expressed the need to have FM 969 as a designated corridor on the map, prompting Clarke to mention a possible transit improvement on a section of MLK Jr. Boulevard. “We already run high-frequency transit down that corridor; the question is, can we add a little bit better service as part of this plan as well,” Clarke said.

Clarke’s responses regarding the objections of the Council members were centered around a reminder that Project Connect’s vision plan does not represent the entire future transit network, only the major corridors. The Orange Line and Blue Line running through Austin’s vertical spine and to the airport via Riverside are getting all the attention for now because they will require many years of infrastructure development and carry the most people on a daily basis.

“By no means should we think about everything in the world as locked in stone, but we do have to get the parts specifically with dedicated corridors and dedicated pathways locked in so the ASMP process can move forward into that part of community engagement,” said Clarke.

This story has been changed since publication to reflect a change in schedule. Map courtesy of Capital Metro.

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