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Capital Metro updates city on federally funded transit study

Monday, January 24, 2022 by Kali Bramble

Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority shared how it plans to spend the first $900,000 in federal money granted to Project Connect this past Thursday in a briefing with the city’s Environmental Commission. The grant, awarded through the Federal Transit Administration’s Capital Investment Program, will fund a pilot study in an equity-based approach to transit-oriented development (ETOD) along the city’s North Lamar, Guadalupe and Riverside transit corridor.

Nothing new in the realm of city planning, transit-oriented development entails pedestrian-oriented, compact, mixed-use development patterns that have taken shape in nearly every major metropolitan area over the past century. What distinguishes Project Connect’s ETOD pilot study is the integration of an equity framework, which Capital Metro’s principal planner, Anna Lan, hopes will curb gentrification patterns that have historically plagued public transportation projects elsewhere.

“Every station proposed for Project Connect is either in an area of historic exclusion (of BIPOC), or undergoing some level of active displacement,” Lan said. “So we have a renewed urgency to get ahead of this issue to help these vulnerable communities … that’s why it’s so important that planning and transit are closely coordinated.”

Lan anticipates the study developing a mixture of affordable housing, small business support, workforce and public space improvement strategies, but first the program’s team will undergo a comprehensive research process to clarify the details. 

Currently, the program is in its community outreach phase designed to inform a formalized policy by the end of 2022. In addition to its Community Advisory Committee meetings and outreach events, Capital Metro is offering several paid input opportunities, including 1.5-hour focus groups ($50 each) and 10 part-time community connector positions ($25/hour).

“When we went on-site and rode the buses ourselves, we spoke with riders and found there to be a bit of a disconnect,” Lan said. “A lot of residents don’t know anything about Project Connect or the fact that light rail is coming to their corridor. That tells us we need to go deeper into the community.”

While the Environmental Commission expressed support for reducing private vehicle use, many criticized the pilot program’s narrow geographic and demographic scope.

“It’s unfortunate that the central line you’re focusing on for this study is servicing predominantly wealthy, white neighborhoods,” Commission Chair Linda Guerrero said. “It skews some of the equity message.”

Commissioner Rachel Scott noted that those in the far east and south sides of town are forced to burn up to two hours to commute via the existing bus system, a fact that the ETOD study does not address. Unfortunately for these residents, Capital Metro must adhere to a federally determined area of focus as a stipulation of the grant, and outcomes within this corridor could influence future funding decisions.

Another reason for the focus on Central Austin is the availability of Capital Metro-owned land in these areas. “There are large lots near the North Lamar and South Congress transit centers designated for transit-oriented development,” Lan said. “This is land we actually have control over.” Still, commissioners seemed concerned that low-income families pushed into the outskirts of town were being “left on the back burner.”

Commissioner Audrey Barrett Bixler suggested that the study account for public health outcomes, hoping to see improved access to the city’s network of parks. “With low-income families, we’re asking them to live in stacked, clustered housing. Now we need to provide them the transportation to get to their backyard.”

While Capital Metro plans to complete the ETOD study by the end of 2022, residents can expect to wait significantly longer for the corridor’s light rail to be fully functional, with revenue service projected to begin in 2029. Until then, Capital Metro has promised to regularly update its ETOD website with the study’s findings.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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