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Why Highland? Urban Rail Advocates Question Project Connect Process

Wells Dunbar, KUT News
Project Connect lead Kyle Keahey, presenting his group's initial recommendations last month.

Disclaimer: Project Connect is a KUT sponsor.

Update: The Austin City Council unanimously endorsed two locations for urban rail last night: the Highland Mall region and East Riverside. You can watch citizen testimony and council action on the recommendation.

As KUT reported, investment in those corridors was proposed by Project Connect – a working group of City of Austin, Capital Metro, and other regional transportation officials.

Project Connect named Highland and East Riverside after what it said was a robust, data-driven public input process – but many rail advocates present at the vote last night questioned the process and the decision.

Original story (Dec. 12): To hear Project Connect tell it, they’re practically drowning in data. Project lead Kyle Keahey cited some 45 different measures of information and 11 indices when the group announced its recommendation. (You can look at lots of that data here.)

The group’s worked since the summer to create an initial recommendation on urban rail. With any rail line serving the central business district downtown, Project Connect began gathering input on which “subcorridors” leading from Downtown should also be served by rail initially – before deciding on Highland and Riverside.

But some say it’s been designed to obfuscate an obvious choice.

“This was a very complicated process,” Mike Dahmus told the city’s Central Corridor Advisory Group earlier this month. “It did not have to be.”

A former member of Austin’s Transportation Commission, Dahmus has been a vocal critic of the Project Connect process. He says successful cities do one thing when it comes to creating a new transit line: run it from a dense residential area to a dense employment area.

“There is one corridor like that in Austin,” he said: the Guadalupe/Lamar region, currently served by Cap Metro’s No. 1 bus.

“That route is called Number One because it is the most heavily used route in the city,” Dahmus said. “And one of the most egregious errors by Project Connect – during a process which had bad data, bad analysis, and then bad conclusions – was an early map which showed the exact opposite.” (Watch video of the testimony here.) 

Project Connect since corrected that map. But Dahmus contended the entire Project Connect exercise was conducted with a foregone conclusion in mind. (Others have pointed out a marked similarity between the city’s previously proposed route and the route selected by Project Connect’s process.)

Credit Spencer Selvidge, KUT News
A bus in Capital Metro's new MetroRapid fleet.

There’s also the issue of Cap Metro’s new MetroRapid service, launching in January, and the possibility it may have doomed rail’s chances on Guadalupe/Lamar.

The rapid bus service is launching thanks to a $38 million federal grant. Move the line, some worry, and Cap Metro could lose the money.

Announcing Project Connect’s recommendations, Kyle Keahey said MetroRapid played no role in the group’s decision.

“One of the things that we committed to early on was not to eliminate any subcorridor from consideration because of prior investments,” Keahey said.  “Lamar, given the MetroRapid investment – we didn’t throw it out.”

And while MetroRapid wasn’t a strike against Guadalupe/Lamar in Project Connect’s measures and indexes, it definitely was an issue when it came time to make a decision.

The Central Corridor Advisory Group, led by Mayor Lee Leffingwell, OK’d the Highland-East Riverside proposal last week. Asked at that meeting what impact Guadalupe/Lamar rail would have on MetroRapid’s support from the Federal Transit Administration, Cap Metro Vice Chair John Langmore didn’t mince words.

“Let me say unequivocally, absolutely 100 percent that all of our dealings with the FTA have indicated at we have to continue forward with the MetroRapid project as its been proposed, and as its ready to be launched in one month,” he said.

Langmore continued that if MetroRapid’s an undisputed success on Guadalupe/Lamar, there’s no reason it can’t be served by rail at a later date.

But transportation activists say expansion won’t be an option – if rail’s first phase isn’t a success. 

Wells has been a part of KUT News since 2012, when he was hired as the station's first online reporter. He's currently the social media host and producer for Texas Standard, KUT's flagship news program. In between those gigs, he served as online editor for KUT, covering news in Austin, Central Texas and beyond.
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