Austin: Project Connect Plan Envisions Up to $9.8B in Transit Improvements
Featured Photo (above): Capital Metro’s Project Connect envisions, among other things, two new dedicated rail or bus rapid transit lines and a third new rail line that would connect downtown Austin to east Travis County and Bastrop County. Image: Capital Metro
By Edmond Ortiz
Austin (Travis County)–The development of two new dedicated transit lines, using either light rail or bus rapid transit, would be the linchpins as well as the costliest features of Project Connect, a long-range transit network plan that Capital Metropolitan Transit Authority proposes.
Members of the Capital Metro board and Austin City Council met Oct. 30 to discuss Project Connect. Staffers from Capital Metro have spent the last few years getting feedback from residents and other stakeholders as part of a process of formulating future mode options and routes.
The city of Austin projects the local population increasing from the current 985,000 to 1.3 million in 20 years. A mix of transportation modes other than the standard driver-occupant automobile–rail, bus, rideshare, bicycles, walking, e-scooters–will account for half of all means of transport by 2039.
Capital Metro’s proposed Orange Line transitway for light rail or bus rapid transit. Image: Capital Metro
Nothing, as yet, is set in stone. Capital Metro is continuing a public engagement process and further refining Project Connect. The final proposals will likely be part of a bond package that voters may consider in 2020.
Voters rejected rail bond proposals in 2000 and 2014.
The working document currently has estimated costs that range from $4.7 billion to $9.8 billion. The number closest to actual cost will depend on with parts make it into the final Project Connect document.
The biggest and most expensive projects would be the two transitways–the Blue Line and the Orange Line.
A transitway is a dedicated route meant for bus or rail public transit. The idea is keep cars and mass transit vehicles separated, thus improving mobility.
The Orange Line would be a 21-mile north-south connection to, from and within Central Austin, with 16 stations and new transit hubs. It would cleave a new path down North Lamar Boulevard/Guadalupe Street (at the fork), south through the University of Texas campus, downtown and into the South Congress Avenue area.
This line could have possible extensions north to Tech Ridge and south to Slaughter Lane.
The Blue Line would set up a transitway between Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, the city’s central core and some of the highest-density neighborhoods.
This line could have up to 15 stations and new transit hubs.
It would traverse East Riverside Drive, across Lady Bird Lake to downtown, north along Trinity Street to the UT campus, with a possible extension to Austin Community College-Highland.
Capital Metro officials said both lines are in the conceptual phase of planning and that the transit authority must decide whether tunnels or elevated lanes–or a mix of both–could make those new transitways operate correctly.
Capital Metro’s proposed Blue Line transitway would accommodate either light rail or bus rapid transit. Image: Capital Metro
The Capital Metro board, in concert with City Council, shall determine whether the transitways will be for light rail or bus rapid transit.
The costs of building both the Orange Line and the Blue Line run from $1.9 billion to $5.9 billion. Bus rapid transit is the cheaper option, but would service fewer passengers.
“You get more because you spend more,” Capital Metro CEO Randy Clarke said.
Project Connect also references current improvements to Capital MetroRail’s Red Line, including the addition of a second set of tracks near select stations, and the proposal for a 27-mile MetroRail Green Line, from downtown Austin to eastern Travis County and into Bastrop County.
Additionally, Project Connect proposes building new Park & Ride facilities, new maintenance facilities, enhancing existing amenities and improving current bus services.
The number of new Park & Rides hasn’t been determined by the transit authority.
Capital Metro expects that federal money will cover up to 40% of the projected higher-end costs.
Council members said they realize expanding the mass transit system is going to be an expensive and disruptive proposition, so it’s best to be transparent with voters and users about the size, scale, purpose and cost behind each project.
“We’re retrofitting a city and it is going to cost a lot of money,” said Councilmember Natasha Harper-Madison.
The transit authority is scheduled to finalize the Project Connect plan in March, then recommend it for council approval. The city then would prepare a transit bond proposal to float in the November 2020 elections.
Edmond Ortiz is a lifelong San Antonian and a 20-plus-year veteran in local journalism, He previously worked full-time at the San Antonio Express-News, and has been freelancing for outlets such as the Rivard Report.