The slow, steady march continues toward an expected November vote on a multibillion-dollar investment in public transit, as City Council and Capital Metro officials met on Tuesday, Jan. 14, to discuss how to pay for the new and expanded services. Both the city and the transit authority emphasized how the plan envisioned by the Project Connect effort – with a price tag estimated at between $5 billion and $10 billion – represented a "once in a generation" chance to revolutionize mobility in Austin.
A transformed transit system is badly needed if Austin intends to accommodate the metro area's continued growth – expected to reach nearly 4 million people by 2040 – without making chronic traffic congestion exponentially worse and while meeting the community's ambitious climate goals. Austin voters have turned down plans for a citywide rail transit system in the past – in 2000, when the "Austin Area in Motion" plan was narrowly defeated, and in 2014, the first incarnation of Project Connect, which failed amid the city's transition to a 10-1 Council.
The current Project Connect vision is anchored by some form of "high-capacity transit" (HCT) – either a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) or Light Rail Transit (LRT) system – in dedicated right-of-way in a corridor along Lamar and Guadalupe north of Lady Bird Lake and along South Congress south of the river. That "spine," known as the Orange Line, would start north in Tech Ridge and end south at Slaughter Lane. A second HCT route, the Blue Line, would run from Austin Community College's Highland campus through Downtown and across the river, then east along Riverside out to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
The city and Cap Metro hope to prevail over previous voter skepticism by offering a "complete system" intended to appeal to people who may not live along the Orange or Blue Lines. For example, transit all the way to the airport does not have a significant impact on attaining the city's big mobility goal of shifting trips away from driving alone toward other modes (the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan envisions a 50-50 "mode split" by 2039). But it appeals to voters who may otherwise be less inclined to support the significant capital spending needed to build out transit in the city's urban core.
The Project Connect vision also includes new MetroRapid bus routes with frequent service (in addition to the current 801 and 803), MetroRail Green Line commuter rail service (to augment the current Red Line) running through East Austin and into Manor, and other system improvements. The planners and advocates behind Project Connect hope to translate this year's expected record-high voter turnout – as progressives seek to throw Donald Trump out of office and turn Texas blue – into support for an ambitious plan to change how people in Austin get around for generations to come.
Rail Costs More, Does More
An official recommendation on the Project Connect mode won't come until March, but the analysis conducted by Cap Metro staff points to rail as the obvious choice. With BRT – even one with a state-of-the-art fleet and logistics design that could cost between $3.2 billion and $5.5 billion – Cap Metro planners expect the bus system to be at its full ridership capacity by 2040.
"It is more expensive to do a rail system," Mayor Steve Adler told reporters before the meeting. "But we can move so many more people, and it's not going to hit capacity for generations. I'm not sure I'm comfortable spending billions of dollars for something that's going to hit capacity so quick."
Cap Metro staff are still working to determine when a LRT system would hit capacity, but David Couch, the transit agency's Project Connect program officer, said the rail system wouldn't hit capacity until "well beyond 2040." Moreover, rail would be able to move more people when it's fully built out – roughly 299,000 weekday riders at its max potential, compared to 258,000 with the BRT system. Both would more than double the current weekday ridership of the entire Cap Metro bus system.
The LRT options generated by the Project Connect team would cost $3.9 billion on the low end and $10.3 billion on the high end; each would be at least partially elevated above ground level, and (at a minimum cost of $6 billion) parts of the Orange and Blue Lines would go underground. That's right – a subway in Austin.
The Downtown tunnel option would allow the system's two HCT lines to avoid the mess of Downtown traffic, while preserving surface-level lanes for the crosstown buses that will connect the eastern and western parts of the city with the Orange and Blue lines. A tunnel would be expensive, but Couch called it a "very good construction technique" that would provide a "separation that is, basically, invaluable." Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, also interested in the tunnel idea, said, "That's what real cities do."
Clearly, a "real city" transit system isn't cheap. Transit advocates who lived through the 2014 defeat may feel a chill run down their spines as city leaders pitch another huge investment in rail to voters who've been repeatedly told that transit "costs too much and does too little." Tuesday's joint session between the city and Cap Metro was meant to demonstrate the commitment of Project Connect planners and advocates to being transparent about the funding scenarios.
By Austin Sanders
The Austin Chronicle