Austin’s First Attempt at a Big, Urban Transit System Has More Obstacles to Overcome - TransitCenter

Transit planners in Austin are expected to release a pared-back version of the Project Connect plan at the end of March, meaning transit riders might have to settle for less than what they originally approved.

March 14, 2023
Austin’s First Attempt at a Big, Urban Transit System Has More Obstacles to Overcome

This post was written by guest contributor James Brasuell

In November 2020, Austin voters approved Proposition A, setting in motion one of the most ambitious capital investment programs in the entire country, Project Connect. Proposition A implemented a 8.75-cent property tax that will fund a planned $7.1 billion in transit investments, ushering in a new era for the city and surrounding region. 

Over the past decade, the Austin metropolitan area has been one of the fastest growing regions in the country, growing by a whopping 33 percent between 2010 and 2020, and 37 percent the decade prior. That growth is occurring in a relatively car-oriented region, where transit riders accounted for only 3 percent percent of daily work commute trips between 2014 and 2018.

Given that growth pressure, transit advocates and planners “went big” with the scope of Project Connect, says Bill McCamley, executive director of Transit Forward, a local transit advocacy organization. The plan includes two new light rail lines, four new rapid bus routes, and a new commuter rail line, as well as expanded service on the Red Line, the city’s only existing rail transit route. Project Connect also devotes unparalleled attention to anti-displacement measures, with $300 million for affordable housing measures such as rent subsidies and homeownership programs. 

But now comes the hard part for Project Connect, as the challenges of planning and engineering projects of this scope bump up against the realities of funding projects in this era of inflation and worker shortages. Later this month, transit planners are expected to release a new version of the plan that resets the goals for Project Connect, meaning transit riders might have to settle for less than what they originally approved. A document leaked from the Austin Transit Partnership reveals five potential scenarios for the first phase of Project Connect, all of which represent a pared-back version of the original plan.

Transit Investments Get More Expensive After the Pandemic

In April 2022, officials at the Austin Transit Partnership (ATP), the independent entity created by the city of Austin and the Capital Metro Transportation Authority (CapMetro) to design, construct, and implement Project Connect, announced that costs for the light rail lines had nearly doubled, from $5.8 billion to $10.3 billion, driven by rising costs for real estate, construction material, and labor. 

Felicity Maxwell, a board member at AURA, a longstanding local advocacy organization, recently told TransitCenter that the devil was in the details. “Once you get into the engineering of some of these really complex projects, you see that it’s not as easy as you think it’s going to be,” says Maxwell. For example, a section of the Blue and Orange lines intended to share tracks underground near downtown would have to traverse multiple water tunnels and a steep grade. Also, when approved by voters, Project Connect had yet to launch the difficult community engagement to determine the exact specifications of how new rail lines and rapid bus routes would change neighborhoods during and after construction.

Maxwell is hopeful that these challenges may actually end up ensuring the long-term success of Project Connect. One reason for optimism: the city and its partners have already been busy with transportation improvement projects funded by Proposition B, the other major ballot initiative approved by Austin voters in 2020, which created $460 million in bond funding for sidewalks, bikeways, urban trails, and traffic safety. That bond has funded projects like the Red Line Parkway, a linear park following the Red Line, providing tangible mobility benefits while showing how “interlocal” agreements between suburban jurisdictions and the city of Austin can work.

The need for suburban partnerships is doubly obvious as post-pandemic ridership on CapMetro has recovered faster on the Red Line commuter rail than on bus routes in the center city, especially around the University of Texas. “A lot of times commuters get a little bit vilified, like Park and Ride folks are ‘not core users,’” says Maxwell. But those riders present a constituency that will be critical to support for these projects across jurisdictional lines.

Remaining Obstacles

Meanwhile, ATP planners are hard at work on the revisions to the Project Connect program–dubbed “Project Connect 2.0” by Maxwell. Those revisions, to be shared at a public meeting on March 21, could potentially trim the number of planned bridges over Lady Bird Lake from one to two, among other changes. According to McCamley, discussions about the changes are also focusing on the downtown tunnel, a proposed maintenance yard for the light rail lines, and how to ensure that the new rail and rapid routes serve the densest parts of the city. While not providing any definitive detail yet, the document leaked on March 10 shows substantial changes to planned routes, but does include one alternative that retains the downtown tunnel. The March 21 meeting will officially kick-off the community engagement process to inform plan revisions. 

To help get Project Connect on track, the Austin City Council in November 2022 approved code changes to ease construction and permitting of Project Connect projects, though the details of how land use regulation can support the anti-displacement and equity goals of Project Connect will still require a lot of work. “You pass this plan. Great,” McCamley told TransitCenter. “What are the ordinance provisions that you’re going to put in? Can you do zoning overlays? Can you work on lowering parking requirements for areas along transit corridors? What kind of affordability incentives can be put in those sorts of things so that everybody can afford to live by these projects?” 

The Eno Center for Transportation published a report on the governance of Project Connect citing the need for the three institutions to work together to deliver Project Connect with maximum benefit at the street level and across the maintenance and operation of several modes. Multiple recent leadership changes have made the task more challenging. Randy Clarke, the former head of CapMetro, departed for D.C. shortly after the cost increases were made public, and the city elected a new mayor, Kirk Watson, in November 2022. ATP has helped bring some stability to the governance issues by transitioning Greg Canally from interim to Executive Director in March 2023, but that’s just one step among many. “We all have to be rowing in the same direction,” says McCamley.

While big portions of the Project Connect are delayed and uncertain, some work is already underway. CapMetro broke ground on the Pleasant Valley MetroRapid line, one of the four rapid bus routes included in the plan, in February 2022. Work subsequently began on the Expo Center rapid bus route, as well as the new McKalla Station at Q2 Stadium on the Red Line. The FTA also provided another round of grant funding to enable equitable transit-oriented development planning at two pilot sites: the North Lamar Transit Center and the CapMetro headquarters on East Fifth Street. The Austin Housing and Planning Department’s extensive eTOD plan is expected to position the region well for more such grants in the future, as well as informing decisions about what gets built along new routes.

But Austin residents are still waiting to see any tangible benefits from Project Connect. The Blue and Orange light rail lines, projected to begin operation in 2030, are still a long way off. The opening dates for the Pleasant Valley and Expo Center rapid bus routes were recently delayed until 2025. ATP, CapMetro, and the advocates that spoke to TransitCenter have all zeroed in on the need for more attention to the details of these projects, cost increases or not. Capital Metro CEO Dottie Watkins told KUT, for example, that faulty planning assumptions contributed to the delay on the rapid bus routes, but that CapMetro was “confident we are going to come through this with some great clarity.” The delay will help CapMetro address the “elephant in the room” of driver shortages.  

The delay of the rapid bus routes is just another example of the need to update Project Connect to reflect the lessons learned so far. “Many of the assumptions made in 2020 are just not realistic in 2023,” says Maxwell. The challenge now facing the region’s planners and advocates is to ensure that the new and improved CapMetro transit system was worth the wait. 

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