Commentary: Austin transit upgrade is multigenerational investment

Last month, Capital Metro debuted a draft system map as part of Project Connect. The goal is to build a regional transit network that preserves our quality of life and helps address the region’s affordability issues.

We’ve been working at it for a couple of years already, but we’re just getting started. Project Connect will be a multigenerational investment in our region’s future. This draft plan isn’t necessarily recommending running light rail on Lamar and Guadalupe, say, or a streetcar on South Congress.

The map showcases 11 corridors throughout Central Texas we’ve determined would benefit the most from dedicated transit services. What we mean by that is transit vehicles traveling in their own lanes, free from the regular flow of traffic.

INSIGHT: UT data shows ‘transit deserts’ in Austin and 52 U.S. cities.

I don’t want to imply that we can get rid of traffic congestion altogether. Big cities have traffic problems — and there’s no denying that Central Texas is growing faster all the time. The long-range report from the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization predicts that Central Texas will be home to 4 million residents by 2040.

I lived in Greater Boston for 13 years. It has 4.7 million people and eight regional transit agencies that operate three subways, five light rail lines, four bus rapid transit lines, 12 commuter rail lines plus ferries. And it is by no means congestion free, but people have options.

Now, picture Austin in 20 years with just our two MetroRapid routes, one MetroRail line and 4 million people. We need solutions — and we need to think big!

Construction on the first of these projects won’t begin for a few more years at least, and some of what we’re proposing won’t be completed for 10 to 15 years. But these changes will benefit Central Texas for decades after. That’s what we mean when we say multigenerational investment.

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Our major focus these days is Cap Remap, an overhaul of our bus network that will make the system more frequent, more reliable and better connected. It looks at the tools we have now and makes them work more efficiently and more effectively.

Project Connect will require investment, though. You may have seen some numbers floating around out there since we debuted the draft system map in March — $6 billion to $10 billion. That’s not a final cost, of course. It’s a preliminary estimate, a range that these projects could fall in. And it’s a cost that will be borne over many years.

To give some perspective, voters in several cities nationwide have committed to major transit investments in recent years, including Los Angeles ($120 billion), Seattle ($54 billion) and Phoenix ($31 billion).

What’s important to understand is that investment equals results. We’ve seen that time and again. When you invest in services that give people options, they take you up on them.

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Capital Metro’s past investments have proven just that. We devoted increased resources and smart planning to our MetroRapid service in 2017 and have seen a 43 percent increase in ridership year over year. In January, we added service to our MetroExpress routes, and we’ve seen a 20 percent increase on the service’s MoPac routes.

Whether it’s on steel wheels or rubber tires, people will need to travel on these 11 corridors to get where they need to go. And we need to provide them with a better option than what’s available now.

The important thing is that these transit services will need to operate in their own right-of-way — on train tracks or in dedicated bus lanes. That’s why we’re working so closely with the cities, counties and other stakeholder groups. Our partnerships are going to be essential throughout this process.

We have been working more closely than ever with the Austin Transportation Department and other regional partners. At our most recent board meeting, Delia Garza, a City Council Member who also sits on our board of directors, said it as well as anyone has: “We’re not going to solve our problems one agency at a time.”

It’s going to take team work and it’s going to take coordination. We’ll also look to the federal government for funding assistance.

TRANSPORTATION: Is Austin finally ready for light rail? The answer may come in 2020.

U.S. News & World Report has just ranked Austin as the best place to live in the country for the second year in a row. After a month of living here in Central Texas, I’ve already become well acquainted with what makes this place so great. I’m as committed to finding community solutions as all of you are. So, you’ll hear a lot more from us in the coming years, and we want to hear a lot more from you on potential solutions.

Decisions have consequences — and so does inaction. Investments in the near future are going to secure the unique quality of life in Central Texas for generations to come.

Clarke is president and CEO of Capital Metro.

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