Cap Metro long-term plan leaks out, exciting light rail activists


Draft plan envisions a light rail line on Guadalupe and North Lamar, long a preferred route by transit fans.

Cap Metro declined to released further details of a plan not set for public release until late March.

The problem for the $2.1 billion plan, as always, is funding with an uncertain and changing federal picture.

Capital Metro didn’t intend for the map to become public. And it has the word “draft” marked in light gray across the various rail and bus lines arrayed across the Austin area.

Even so, light rail supporters in Austin Tuesday were atwitter — literally — after a copy of the proposed Project Connect “high capacity transit system” map emerged on social media. The focus of that perhaps premature excitement: a possible 12-mile, $2.1 billion light rail line cutting up the center of Austin on Guadalupe Street and North Lamar Boulevard.

That line, if were to advance from yet another line on a map to reality, would fulfill what has been a several-decade quest for electric-powered passenger rail in Austin. But as always with transit — and even more so in a period where the federal government seems to be turning away from it — the funding is a phantom at this point.

“That’s always the question that comes to mind: Where’s the money?” said Lyndon Henry, a former Capital Metro board member who has been advocating for light rail in Austin since the early 1970s. “But where there’s a will, there’s a way. Mostly.”

Capital Metro officials, who had rebirthed the Project Connect transit planning process a couple of years ago after a previous version led to light rail’s 2014 election defeat, had meant for the draft to become public in a few weeks at the agency board’s March meeting. That will be the first one for incoming Capital Metro President and CEO Randy Clarke — he starts work March 7 — and he had told the agency staff he wanted a few weeks to review and understand the plan.

But someone who attended a Capital Metro public advisory board meeting Monday evening secreted out some photos of the exhibits, and then rail activist Scott Morris tweeted out the somewhat blurry images Tuesday.

RELATED: The 2014 “urban rail” proposal by the city of Austin

The presentation made available by Morris talks about a system that ultimately would have three light rail lines and four bus rapid transit lines (there are already two in place), along with the existing MetroRail red line and an added green line to Manor/Elgin.

MetroRail, with diesel-powered trains running to Leander on existing freight rail track, is considered commuter rail rather than light rail. The line opened in 2010 and at this point generally sees fewer than 3,000 boardings a day. The Project Connect presentation foresees light rail ridership of at least 22,500 a day by 2025.

That is, if a line could somehow be funded and built by then — an unlikely scenario.

At least one of those light rail lines would cut up Guadalupe and Lamar. Many light rail supporters in 2014 came out against the city of Austin and Capital Metro ballot proposal for a single $1.4 billion line, which instead went up Red River Street and Airport Boulevard. That core of enthusiasts have been pushing for the Guadalupe-Lamar alternative ever since.

RELATED: MetroRail’s long, strange trip to 2010 opening

This proposal is subject to at least minor tweaks between now and late March, said a chagrined Todd Hemingson, Capital Metro’s vice president of planning and strategic development. He declined to release the draft proposal.

“But we’re not going move a line off a major corridor” on the map as it exists, Hemingson said. The tentative plan at this point is to ask the Capital Metro board to vote its blessing on a high-capacity transit plan in May or June, he said.

The planning process would continue after that, he said, with progressive levels of detail and phasing plans. That, in theory and in time, could lead to local, state and federal funding for final design and construction.

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