Capital Metro, which hopes one day to run “rapid” buses on free-flowing Interstate 35 toll lanes, will have to pay at least $18 million for that opportunity.
And the agency has to make that decision soon, even though the toll lanes are years away from being built.
Under pressure from the Texas Department of Transportation, which is well into planning and environmental studies for a $4 billion-plus overhaul of I-35 through Central Texas, the Capital Metro board in September will consider making that initial financial commitment. TxDOT needs to know whether to plan for bus stops next to those toll lanes, which would involve buying more land for the project, among other costs.
“We’re in or we’re out,” Capital Metro Chief Executive Officer Linda Watson told her board this month. “We’re kind of at a crossroads.”
The makeover of I-35 is expected to include an added lane in each direction from Round Rock to Buda with tolls that fluctuate based on the number of drivers using the lane. Transit buses, however, would be able to use the toll lanes at no charge — and without stopping, assuming the “dynamic” tolls prevent congestion as transportation officials hope.
“What we’re bringing to the board is, do we want to get our foot in the door, so to speak, to preserve the ability to operate high-quality transit on I-35?” Todd Hemingson, Capital Metro’s vice president of strategic planning and development, told the American-Statesman. “There’s only one regional interstate in Central Texas, and when you get a chance in the more important corridor in the region, there are a lot of reasons to do that.”
Capital Metro would like to run its rapid bus, limited-stop service on those toll lanes from Texas 45 North in Round Rock to Texas 45 Southeast near Buda. But the transit agency, to get as much ridership as possible from such a service, would prefer “in-line” stops in several places through the interval.
An in-line station would involve adding a lane alongside each toll lane for several hundred yards at each station point, allowing buses to leave the flow of cars and pull to a stop. Because the toll lanes are likely to be in the middle of I-35, bus passengers would have to get to and from the stations using either existing overpasses or new pedestrian bridges running from alongside the highway to the median.
Capital Metro probably would have connecting east-west bus service to these locations, allowing some passengers to make a short walk to get to the in-line stations. Other passengers might face a longer hike.
The alternative — an inferior option in Capital Metro’s view — is to have park-and-ride lots just off I-35 at several points. But that would force buses to leave the toll lane, weave across traffic and then exit the highway to pick up and drop off passengers, then reverse that process to get back into the toll lane.
That would take up to 10 minutes each time, Hemingson said. At an in-line station, the bus could come to a stop and then be moving again within 30 seconds, he said. That decreases the length of a commuting trip by bus considerably and thus, he said, increases ridership.
Capital Metro, which has been talking to TxDOT about the I-35 project for more than five years, had proposed a “super bus rapid transit” plan with nine in-line stations from Round Rock to Buda. The added cost, TxDOT said: $400 million. Beyond that, TxDOT has already begun intersection overhauls at several of those locations, including East 51st and Oltorf streets and William Cannon Drive, without an in-line station in the design.
So Capital Metro and TxDOT now have a slimmed-down version, with in-line stations proposed at Tech Ridge (just south of Howard Lane), Rundberg Lane and Slaughter Lane, and a park-and-ride lot near Texas 45 Southeast that could have flyover bridges going to and from the toll lane. In addition, this approach has special bus connections at 15th Street and flyover bridges from East Riverside Drive that would help the buses get to downtown Austin.
In a letter to Capital Metro last year, TxDOT estimated it would cost an added $123 million to do this, Hemingson said.
If it all works out, Capital Metro envisions all-day express service in the toll lanes, not merely commute-time buses, and ridership between 4,000 and 8,000 boardings a day.
TxDOT wants Capital Metro to foot the entire bill for transit accommodations, starting with $18 million this year to buy additional right of way at the three in-line station sites.
Hemingson said the $18 million is “the money we could reasonably bring to the table.” But the full $123 million for the total transit package?
“We can’t do that,” Hemingson told the board. “If we did that, we would not have the money to run the service.”
Restricted by recent constitutional amendments and legislative action from using large chunks of its revenue on toll projects, TxDOT is looking for funding any place it can get it for the expensive I-35 work. The state agency has deemed some of the projects in the $4 billion plan unrelated to the toll lanes and has begun some of those improvements. And officials have said in the past that $1 billion or more could be borrowed on the public bond market and paid back with toll revenue.
But a funding gap of unknown size remains. Asked about the $123 million it requested from Capital Metro just a few months ago, agency spokeswoman Diann Hodges said that estimate was part of a conversation between the two agencies that “is no longer applicable.”
But whatever the figure for those in-line stations and other bus facilities turns out to be, Hodges, who is from TxDOT’s Austin district, said that “as far as financing goes, none of our funding sources will cover transit.”