Project Connect Unveils Cap Metro's Orange Line
The first route in a high-capacity transit plan
More than 100 Austinites attended Capital Metro's come-as-you-please Orange Line information session on Monday, April 8. The proposed line through the "spine" of Austin – as Cap Metro's President and CEO Randy Clarke described it – is part of the larger Project Connect, a comprehensive plan to build a "high-capacity transit" system throughout the Austin region. The agency hopes to move forward in tandem with the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan (before City Council today, April 11), with final options laid out before year's end and a Cap Metro board decision by March 2020.
The transit agency feels optimistic about what it sees as a shift in Austin's mindset. Finally, said Clarke, "the debate is no longer whether we need to do this, but how. No longer is it debatable that to be a healthy, equitable, robust city we need public transportation – much more than we have today. So now, how do we get the community to come together around what the right long-term investment decisions are and how the pieces come together?"
To get to that answer, Clarke said, Cap Metro has to identify what's most important to Austinites. The latest version of the Project Connect planning process has to consider factors such as frequency of service, the type of transit vehicles used (bus, rail, or something else), how long a system will take to build, how much that buildout will cost, and how much the system will cost to operate and maintain in the future. In addition, Capital Metro aims to educate the community on the trade-offs and balances that will be necessary to deploy high-capacity transit on what are already well-traveled streets. "Obviously," said Clarke, those trade-offs depend on each person's point of view, which is why it's a "big community process."
As a starting point, the Project Connect team has identified what it's dubbed the Orange Line, running north/south between Tech Ridge and Slaughter Lane. While an exact alignment has not been finalized, the Orange Line travels major corridors including North Lamar, Guadalupe/Lavaca, and South Congress, which already see Capital Metro's highest ridership and which are currently served in large part by the MetroRapid 801 line. "If we're going to make a dent in congestion and mobility options, we need this line to be a major part of our long-term solutions," explained Clarke, who's been on the job for a little more than a year – that is, after the choice of an alignment other than the Orange Line soured many transit advocates on the agency's previous Project Connect proposal, defeated by voters in 2014.
This version of Project Connect, kicked off in 2017, has featured close collaboration with the city of Austin. Already the project is baked into the city's ASMP, which allocates dedicated space for high-capacity rapid transit on major corridors and suggests a lesser scale of "transit priority" treatments on secondary corridors such as Burnet, South Lamar, and Pleasant Valley. Council's anticipated adoption of the ASMP will be a "big leap on a policy position," said Clarke. "The most important thing for good transit is a dedicated right of way to operate exclusively on."
It's then on Cap Metro to decide the technical aspects of Project Connect – "what to build where" to make the best investment of both money and space, explained Clarke. Pointing to the MetroRail Crestview station – where the Orange Line would intersect with the existing Red Line – Clarke noted that to make truly functional transit that connects people to the entire city, Cap Metro has to decipher how to create a "mobility hub" that achieves Austin's desired level of service. Only then would come the decision of what mode (bus, rail, etc.) to use. As Clarke summed it up: "Outcome should be what we're focused on. Then you fill in the pieces to get to the outcome."
The Blue Line, proposed to travel Riverside Drive to Bergstrom Airport and UT-Austin, will be the next focus point for Project Connect. Community feedback is welcome at www.projectconnect.com.