Project Connect's Blue Line to Connect Austin Airport to Downtown
The next step in Cap Metro's high-capacity transit plan
If the proposed Orange Line unveiled by Cap Metro in April runs along Austin's spine, the Blue Line traces its right hand, running east/west from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, down Riverside Drive, and into Downtown where it will connect with Orange's north/south route on or near Lamar Boulevard. As proposed, the Blue Line will continue to the University of Texas campus, with a possible extension traveling to Austin Community College's Highland Campus. Both lines are part of Capital Metro's Project Connect vision and planning process for high-capacity transit serving Central Texas.
The Blue Line, like the Orange, would provide that service along the two dedicated transit-only guideways approved by City Council in the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan. As Dave Couch, Cap Metro's program officer for Project Connect, told the Chronicle, dedicated congestion-free right of way is the "key" for high capacity – if the vehicle is "sitting in traffic it isn't going to work."
But the Blue Line's creation will be complicated by its need to cross Lady Bird Lake. Unlike the Orange Line, proposed to use the Drake Bridge (Guadalupe/Lavaca/South First), the Blue Line needs to find a new way across the water, whether bridge or tunnel. Couch said Cap Metro is looking at both options to see which fits best – tunneling offers "out of sight" congestion-free mobility, but "you have to be able to get into it at each end. It's a lot of work."
The transit authority is also pondering how to secure dedicated right of way along the Drag near the UT campus, Couch said. "Is that something that is above [ground]? Below? Is the vehicle at street level and regular traffic is above or below ground?" Solving these pieces of the Project Connect puzzle is "going to take longer" than other parts, Couch acknowledged.
In addition to the Orange and Blue lines, the full Project Connect vision includes Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Light service – similar to the existing MetroRapid 801 and 803 routes – on a number of corridors. These, said Couch, will be simpler to get up and running on existing streets and don't require the same environmental or engineering work as high- capacity services, but are still essential to bumping up Austin's overall transit ridership. "People can't lose track that [the Blue Line] is but one line, and it all works as a system."
While Monday's Project Connect open house shows the planning process in motion, implementation is still well in the future. Key decisions about bridges or tunnels, or what type of vehicle will be deployed on the Blue and Orange lines, will be answered over the next several years, Couch said; Project Connect's preferred alternative on the baseline question of bus vs. rail on those lines is expected to be offered by March 2020 – when the engineering and environmental work required for federal funding would begin, which is expected to take another two years. Meanwhile, voters in November 2020 will likely be asked to consider local financing options for Project Connect.