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Project Connect moves ahead

Tuesday, December 15, 2020 by Harrison Young

Yesterday, Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority provided updates on Project Connect, Austin’s expanded transit plan approved by the voters in November as Proposition A.

Following the completion of Task I, which comprised a number of preliminary steps such as the approval of the system plan, locally preferred alternatives and the passage of Proposition A, Capital Metro’s board approved Task II, which allows contractors to begin the environmental review and preliminary engineering phases of the light rail lines.

This step “further defines each one of the areas of the project,” Dave Couch, Project Connect’s program manager, said.

Environmental review looks at the environmental benefits of the program as well as congestion relief and work with federal and state agencies. Preliminary engineering examines design aspects and optimal corridor improvements needed before construction.

Task II also includes scoping, the process of identifying key areas for more accurate and detailed planning. During this phase, planners and engineers can identify where large hubs are, specific streets the trains will travel on and detailed stop locations.

Community engagement for this stage begins in late January and gives citizens an opportunity to attend a virtual open house, ask questions and make suggestions.

Task II is slated to be completed in winter 2023 and the project engineering phase will begin.

Austin’s existing rail, the Red Line, is also seeing new developments. In addition to double-tracking from Leander to Lakeline, Capital Metro could begin construction on the new McKalla station this summer, near the Austin FC soccer stadium.

Capital Metro and the Austin Transit Partnership will have their first joint meeting on Dec. 18, when ATP’s board members will be selected. The ATP board will be composed of members from City Council, the Capital Metro board and three community experts. The bylaws will also be decided at that time.

Project Connect expects to begin construction on its bus component, MetroRapid, in fall 2021 following environmental clearance and procurement of construction permits and materials. After vehicle and service testing, MetroRapid could be completed by spring 2023.

Capital Metro will open a public survey on MetroRapid in January and hold virtual open houses in February and March.

“We’re a public operation and the community engagement step will never actually end,” said Randy Clarke, president and CEO of Capital Metro.

Portions of Project Connect are already up and running. Neighborhood circulators are operational in seven of the 10 planned zones, and more are in the works in Pflugerville, North Dessau and Southwest Austin.

Capital Metro came in $70 million below budget for the year, a surprising figure considering the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, but it was due in large part to hiring freezes and support from the CARES Act, according to Reinet Marneweck, CFO for Capital Metro.

Tom “Smitty” Smith, executive director of Texas Electric Transportation Resources Alliance, is in favor of the system, which employs electric trains. Capital Metro also recently announced that it will exclusively purchase electric buses moving forward. “It’s typically about 60 percent cleaner to fuel a vehicle with electricity than from fossil fuel,” Smith said.

Project Connect in its entirety is scheduled to be complete in about 13 years, with the major features finishing construction before then.

Rendering courtesy of Capital Metro.

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