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Chamber looks back on 2020 mobility highlights, ahead to 2021

Tuesday, December 1, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

Covid-19 may have shattered many of the expectations local industries had for 2020, but in the realm of transportation, business leaders and elected officials consider the year a milestone for the future of regional movement.

“Despite our current situation, a global pandemic, we’ve accomplished a lot of things,” Shaun Cranston, vice president and director of land development services at Halff Associates, said at the Austin Chamber of Commerce’s virtual mobility conference on Monday. Cranston, who also chairs the chamber’s committee on regional infrastructure and mobility, placed the Texas Transportation Committee’s approval of funding for the Interstate 35 expansion project at the top of that list of accomplishments.

“I don’t have to tell you this is huge news,” Cranston said, referring to the Texas Department of Transportation’s allocation of $3.4 billion to the Capital Express Central project funding gap in April. “I-35 has long been a focus for the Chamber, and when the dirt starts turning in two short years, 2022, it will be the first expansion on I-35 in over 50 years.”

The Capital Express North and South projects are currently fully funded at total costs of $500 million and $400 million, respectively, and are expected to break ground in 2022. The funding gap for the nearly $7 billion Capital Express Central project will be filled by TxDOT’s 2021 Unified Transportation Program, which dedicates almost $743 million to the Capital Express Program, and may begin construction as soon as 2025.

Monday’s featured speakers also celebrated the passing of Project Connect with 58.3 percent of the vote as well as the groundbreaking of the Tesla gigafactory in Del Valle.

The year “2020 will be remembered for many once-in-a-generation events, not the least of which are these transportation projects that we’ve discussed today,” said Jennifer Wiebrand, chair of the Downtown Austin Alliance. In particular, Wiebrand singled out I-35, simultaneously a “key trade corridor and commute route” and a roadway that “has divided our community for decades.”

With TxDOT’s virtual open house for Capital Express Central now open through the end of the year, Wiebrand said the project is approaching a “critical project milestone” in the ongoing effort to reconnect the street grid where the interstate has disrupted east-west mobility through downtown. Taking advantage of the state’s plans to lower the interstate through Central Austin, the Downtown Austin Alliance is advocating for surface-level improvements to the corridor through a cap-and-stitch design that will create new public land above the expanded highway.

Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority CEO Randy Clarke joined the discussion to give an overview of Project Connect’s economic benefits and the program’s next milestones, including the anticipated December 2021/January 2022 groundbreaking on the expo center and Pleasant Valley MetroRapid lines. For longer-term projects like the initial investment’s two light rail lines, Clarke urged that “more voices at the table will lead to a better project overall for this community.”

Clarke said Project Connect will create approximately 97,000 local jobs and will provide numerous opportunities for contracts under the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program, which ensures equal opportunity for small businesses owned and run by economically or socially disadvantaged individuals.

Rohan Patel, senior director of public policy and business development at Tesla, also spoke about the progress at Tesla’s 5-million-square-foot manufacturing facility in Del Valle. Patel said the company is looking to partner with high schools and community colleges to help develop local skills and fill positions at the facility.

Patel said the high school graduate pathway manufacturing development program will link students interested in a variety of engineering disciplines with training in robotics and other specialties while another program will partner with community colleges to “create a pipeline for trained talent that’s ready to hit the ground running.” Patel said there are more than 100 openings at the electric car maker’s new factory.

Consistent with the chamber’s “all-of-the-above” approach to improving mobility, Cranston said the chamber will be advocating for everything from sidewalks and bike lanes to highway expansions and air travel in 2021. Specifically, Cranston said the chamber plans to monitor progress of the city’s 2016 mobility bond, the Capital Express projects, a Proposition B active transportation program, the work surrounding Project Connect and the South MoPac Expressway.

“We are into the big time of reimaging, redesigning, reinstalling, adding new transportation methods for our citizens here,” said Craig Enoch, chair of the chamber’s executive committee.

Photo by Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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