Capital Metro unveiled plans in early March for transit expansion in Austin, with additional rail and bus lines, along with a downtown subway-like tunnel. The plan was intended to help congestion stay manageable as the region was projected to double in population over the next 25 years.
Then, just days later, the threat of the coronavirus forced leaders to order people to stay at home. Roads are less congested right now and the number of passengers on Cap Metro services has dropped by around 60%, as many people are working from home or have lost jobs.
But Cap Metro officials say it’s still important to plan for life after the pandemic, when traffic could once again be an issue. They’re moving ahead with Project Connect, contending the plan would help grow the economy and address issues like equity and climate change.
“We're not going to have significant improvement in our mobility as a city and as a region unless we have a significant investment in transit,” Cap Metro President and CEO Randy Clarke said earlier this month. “It's literally and physically and mathematically impossible. So, we're going to have to decide what city we want to be in the future. And this is going to be a key decision point for our community.”
To help with those decisions, Cap Metro is hosting a series of virtual community meetings to present the latest Project Connect plan and get feedback from the public. To join, go here and register for the Zoom meeting you wish to attend.
- Friday, May 15, at 2 p.m. with District 4 City Council Member Greg Casar and District 7 City Council Member Leslie Pool
- Monday, May 18, at 1 p.m. with District 1 City Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison and Jeffrey Travillion, Capital Metro board member and Precinct 1 Travis County commissioner
- Tuesday, May 19, at 5 p.m. with District 9 City Council Member Kathie Tovo and Wade Cooper, Capital Metro board chair
- Wednesday, May 20, at 11 a.m. with District 6 City Council Member Jimmy Flannigan; Leander Mayor Troy Hill, a Capital Metro board member; and Eric Stratton, Capital Metro board secretary
- Wednesday, May 20, at 5 p.m. with District 10 City Council Member Alison Alter and Terry Mitchell, Capital Metro board member
- Tuesday, May 26, at 11 a.m. with Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Wade Cooper, Capital Metro board chair
- Thursday, May 28, at 6 p.m. with District 5 City Council Member Ann Kitchen, a Capital Metro board member; and District 8 City Council Member Paige Ellis
- Friday, May 29, at 2 p.m. with District 2 City Council Member and Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, Capital Metro board vice Chair; and District 3 City Council Member Sabino “Pio” Renteria, a Capital Metro board member
There’s also a virtual open house, where people can review the plans on their own time.
The plan has been adjusted slightly since the last joint work session between the Austin City Council and Capital Metro board in March. The new plan converts the Gold Line from a Bus Rapid Transit line (dedicated lanes that don’t mix with traffic) to a light rail line. Modeling showed the potential of increased demand could not be carried by buses, according to a memo released earlier this month.
The Gold Line would join the Blue and Orange Lines as new rail lines in Austin. Leaders are also proposing to spend $385 million less on upgrades to the existing Red Line, because they said the added cost to adjust platforms was not worth it.
Travis Albrecht, with the architecture and planning firm Gensler's Austin office, said he predicts the Project Connect plan may not need to change that much – despite potential changes in commuting patterns in the aftermath of the pandemic.
"There's focuses on transit-oriented development, like The Domain and in some other pockets of town that would be near a station," Albrecht said. "So I don't think a lot of those physical patterns are going to change."
What might change, he said, are "some of the secondary modes from those centers, so like trying to boost that last mile offering with more bike paths or even walking paths."
Estimates from March say the plan could cost as much as $9.6 billion over 30 years. Federal grants could pay for 40% of the funding, or around $4 billion.
That leaves another $5.6 billion that would have to be funded locally.
The final staff-recommended plan is expected to be presented June 10. The board and City Council have to decide on a locally preferred plan, a key step for federal funding.
As for local funding, leaders will make those decisions later in the summer ahead of a referendum. Options could include asking voters to borrow money to build the lines, as well as asking for a tax increase to help operate the lines once they are built.
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