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Project Connect update shows early work on schedule for construction

Wednesday, November 17, 2021 by Chad Swiatecki

With City Council having recently approved the joint powers agreement that affirms the roles of the city, Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Austin Transit Partnership in Project Connect’s completion, last week’s Mobility Committee meeting was focused mostly on updates on the many facets of the $7.1 billion project.

Sam Sargent, director of strategy for ATP and Capital Metro, gave the committee largely favorable news about progress of the Orange and Blue lines, along with expansions to the Red Line and what’s ahead for the planning of the Green Line that will service East Austin near the Colony Park transit-oriented development project.

Improvements to the MetroRapid bus service are underway as planned, including a number of new neighborhood circulator routes to areas such as northern Oak Hill and south Menchaca, and deployment of new technology intended to make bus service easier for customers to access. The bus service is also expected to take delivery by Dec. 22 of the first electrified buses that are part of an order of 197 that will eventually save 115 tons of greenhouse gases that would have been generated by mass transit using internal combustion engines.

In the next major steps for the development of the Orange and Blue lines, work is progressing on environmental impact statements that will allow for further engineering plans and applications for federal funding to supplement the bond funding voters approved last year. Sargent said the full funding plans for those lines should be finalized by 2024.

The transit station at McKalla Place, which was one of the city’s requirements connected to the land deal that enabled the creation of the nearby soccer stadium, is moving ahead on schedule in the design phase. Thus far 30 percent of the design is complete, and Sargent said construction contracts will be awarded in January with site work on pace to start in May to allow for a fall 2022 opening.

The Gold Line for MetroRapid bus service that will run from downtown to Austin Community College’s Highland campus, along with VRT routes into the Oak Hill and Menchaca areas, recently completed funding and phasing studies. The downtown-to-ACC service is expected to begin in January 2023, with Menchaca service in early 2024.

Council Member Ann Kitchen said she wants staff to make sure planning for land use and other components of transit-oriented developments connected to Project Connect follow the procedural steps outlined in recent Council action for TOD creation.

“The ETOD resolution that we passed … it had a provision in there that asked staff to come back to Council and designate the areas that we could adopt for transit planning, so that we could follow the ordinance,” she said. “I’m wanting to make sure we don’t skip a step.”

Kitchen was among the most vocal in her concerns during consideration of the joint powers agreement earlier this month, with special attention paid to how far staff could progress in discussions with transit bodies around financing and planning without the need for Council approval.

Council Member Paige Ellis said the new bus circulator routes in her district are welcome, and will need special attention to manage a possible increase in usage during upcoming construction projects in the Oak Hill area.

“The construction and upheaval that the community will experience during that time might be the moment where people will try something new to see how the park-and-ride works,” she said. “I want to make sure that’s at the top of our mind when we look at the sequencing to make sure when people have that expectation, before they approve the tax referendum election, that the deliverables are done to make MetroRapid work as quickly as possible while knowing that some of the construction planning for stops might be difficult.”

Rendering courtesy of Capital Metro.

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