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Project connect

Getting everyone together for city’s first high-capacity transit line

Tuesday, April 9, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority has only just begun its initial yearlong leg of conducting preliminary engineering and studying possible modes and alignments for Project Connect’s Orange Line, the city’s first high-capacity regional transit route, but transportation officials are ready for the community to get on board.

As the first of more public outreach efforts to come, Capital Metro hosted an open-house meeting at the Austin Central Library Monday afternoon. Community members were invited to get acquainted with the Orange Line and talk with representatives from Capital Metro and AECOM, the multinational engineering firm tasked with studying the route and advising the agency on which types of vehicles would work best given geographical constraints. AECOM engineers will also make a determination on where those vehicles may need to go, whether above or below ground, to avoid conflicts with other vehicles at street level.

The Orange Line will run through Central Austin with stops at several activity centers like St. Edward’s University, South Congress Avenue, Auditorium Shores, Republic Square, the Texas Capitol, and the University of Texas.

The meeting offered an assortment of visuals showing different aspects of the Orange Line corridor that will have an impact on the lingering questions of whether the public will be riding on rubber wheels or rail, and if tunnels or elevated pathways will be involved.

One graphic, for example, showed several segments along the route where space on the street is limited, such as Guadalupe Street between 28th and 38th streets, that will likely require the transit line to get around car traffic by going under or above ground.

While these questions are likely to have a significant impact on the line’s cost to taxpayers and the overall performance of the route, Capital Metro CEO Randy Clarke said the most important piece of the high-capacity transit puzzle – dedicated lanes – has mostly been taken care of with City Council’s initial approval of the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan on March 28.

“It seems to me there’s a lot of momentum behind the current version of the ASMP,” Clarke said. “We’ll see how it all fleshes out, but I think we’re a lot closer as a community to dedicated lanes on the Orange and Blue (lines) than at any time, in my understanding, there’s ever been.”

With that piece of policy nearly in place, Clarke said the remaining questions are the technical considerations that involve comparison of different modes, like whether frequency is more important than the passenger capacity of each vehicle, how much the community wants to spend per vehicle and how much time should be spent building out the transit line.

In answering these questions, Capital Metro aims to “future-proof” the transit line so that evolving technological innovations like self-driving cars could theoretically be incorporated into whatever infrastructure ends up being built. AECOM experts will be following the progress of autonomous vehicle technology closely to provide guidance as Capital Metro plans the route.

Regardless of the state of technology, the federal government will also have to play along if the city wants to be on the cutting edge of technology in public transit. There is currently no federal regulatory process for autonomous rapid transit (ART), so the city could not put such vehicles on the ground even if the technology was fully tested and ready for the market.

Jerry Smiley, AECOM’s project manager for the Orange Line, said there is no way to know yet if both the technology and the political environment will be ready to implement autonomous vehicles by the time the Orange Line is ready for construction. By February 2020, Smiley said the agency may be able to offer Capital Metro a better timeline of when that technology may potentially be incorporated into the route.

As yet another challenge with ART, Smiley said the American transit industry operates rather slowly, only recently getting around to electrifying bus fleets. That means purchasing vehicles in the U.S., in accordance with the “Buy America” requirements adopted last year by the Federal Transit Administration, will be impossible unless American manufacturers can be incentivized to produce autonomous-capable transit vehicles.

Still, with autonomous transit slowly making its way into the public eye – a “trackless tram” autonomous bus/light-rail hybrid recently hit the streets of Zhuzhou, China – Clarke said studying those options is simply doing “due diligence.”

“We’re going to study all potential options, lay out a fact-case for all of them, and then ultimately our board will have to make a decision based on the fact-case that’s driven through community engagement and technical analysis,” Clarke said.

The meeting ran from 3-7 p.m. without any formal presentations or group discussions. Longtime local transit activist Roger Baker said the meeting format was too chaotic to facilitate a more focused conversation in which the public and Capital Metro could all get on the same page.

Map courtesy of Capital Metro.

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