Capital Metro lays out ambitious rail and rapid bus plan for Austin


Capital Metro releases a long-range plan for ‘high-capacity’ transit.

Three lines, including one from downtown to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, could be rail.

Agency’s board votes to ask city officials to put $15 million for a transit study in a November bond election.

Capital Metro, once again grabbing the wheel of Central Texas’ potential transit future, revealed a long-term vision Monday that includes 11 corridors for rail service or “rapid” buses traveling on segregated lanes.

And the Capital Metro board voted unanimously Monday to ask the city of Austin to contribute up to $15 million for engineering and environmental analysis — by including that money in a probable bond election this fall — in effect, startup funding for a first round of projects early next decade.

Capital Metro, according to agency documents, believes it could kick in another $5 million for the first studies and will also ask Travis County to help pay for them. The money would be used for analysis of an initial group of highest priority projects, Capital Metro officials said. Precisely which projects won’t be decided by the agency’s board until late this year, they said.

The money from the city “is really critical to keep the ball rolling,” said Todd Hemingson, Capital Metro’s vice president of strategic planning and development.

That Capital Metro is asking the city for help at the beginning of what would be a “multigenerational investment,” in Hemingson’s words, underscoring the fundamental challenge of what the transit agency envisions. Building out the entire plan, Capital Metro officials said in a PowerPoint presentation on the draft “Project Connect” plan, would require $6 billion to $8 billion and up to 30 years.

But Capital Metro at this point has only enough money to run its bus routes and the one existing rail line, MetroRail, including a planned expansion of the commuter line — added cars, a new downtown station and siding track — and federally required signal system changes that together will cost close to $150 million.

“If we’re going to have transit in Central Texas of the scale we need, it’s going to have to be a great collaboration between our organization and cities and various other partners,” said Capital Metro board President Wade Cooper, an Austin lawyer. “We can’t do it by ourselves.”

Capital Metro is funded by a 1 percent sales tax that, while it grows over time, isn’t sufficient to make payments on billions in debt.

Rail lines

The draft plan, set for a Capital Metro board vote in June after some public meetings over the coming weeks, includes three proposed lines with “higher ridership and cost,” according to a map released at the meeting: a blue line from downtown Austin to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport along East Riverside Drive, a brown line on South Congress Avenue from downtown to Slaughter Lane and an orange line on Lavaca and Guadalupe streets and North Lamar Boulevard to far North Austin.

Would those most likely be rail lines?

“You could read that into the tea leaves,” Hemingson said.

An earlier draft of the transit plan emerged in February.

A second set of “high ridership and cost” projects would include expansion of the existing red line — MetroRail — as well as a purple line along Manor Road to the Travis County Exposition Center and a yellow line from downtown to Oak Hill along South Lamar Boulevard and U.S. 290.

The third category — “medium ridership and cost” — includes only a gold line that would go from downtown to the Austin Community College Highland campus.

A fourth set of “developing corridors” includes service from downtown to Manor, an east-west line in Austin’s core, service along South Pleasant Valley Road to the McKinney Falls area and on East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard from downtown to Decker Lane.

A familiar script

Randy Clarke, entering his fourth week as Capital Metro president and CEO, shied away from saying which of those corridors — the existing MetroRail aside — would have rail or some form of rapid bus service.

“Instead of worry about the specific type of wheel, whether it is steel or rubber,” Clarke said, the point is to decide where a much larger Austin in 20 years will need some way of moving large numbers of people quickly. That could include the option, somewhat cheaper than light rail, of putting buses in their own dedicated lanes to avoid the congestion enveloping the rest of the vehicle traffic stream.

Capital Metro, which began crafting the Project Connect plan two years ago, is following a familiar script in the transit industry. Other cities — and Austin during two previous, unsuccessful attempts to build light rail — have laid out a larger regional transit plan before introducing specifics of initial projects and cobbling together money to build them. The idea is that voters might approve an initial expenditure in other parts of a metro area, knowing that another line will eventually reach them.

Capital Metro in 2000 had a 52-mile system in mind when it put light rail before voters. That referendum lost by fewer than 2,000 voters. Then the city of Austin in 2007 took charge with what became an earlier version of Project Connect.

That led to the failed light rail election in 2014.

“We don’t have to build everything to own everything,” Clarke told the board. “But I think we should be the mobility manager for the region.”

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