Project Connect offers final plan

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Cities look at funding, phasing options as next steps

By 2035 demographers estimate about 55 percent of the Central Texas regions jobs are expected to be located within the Project Connect North Corridor stretching from downtown Austin to cities in Williamson County.

This growth is one of the reasons area transportation and elected officials have been working the past several years to create a regional transportation plan.

Achieving better regional mobility is part of the overarching Project Connect vision that will improve connectivity among four counties and 13 cities, including Georgetown and Round Rock. In that vision are five corridors emanating from downtown Austin, and each corridor has its own plan. Project Connect officials have deemed the North Corridor as the highest-priority corridor.

One of [Georgetown City Councils] goals is the continuation and expansion of the transportation program, Georgetown Transportation Services Director Ed Polasek said. We have people asking for service all the time, and now we have a blueprint for how it will be established.

On April 16, North Corridor plannersconsisting of mayors and other elected and transportation officialsunveiled their locally preferred alternative, or LPA, map of proposed transit options to connect those cities via bus and rail services.

If we want to maintain prosperity, preserve the natural beauty and our quality of life, weve got to do something about our [traffic]congestion, said Linda Watson, president and CEO of Capital Metro, the city of Austins transit agency. We need it allroads, but as importantly, transit.

The proposed services would link to existing services such as MetroRail in Austin and provide an estimated 19,000 additional daily transit trips that could remove 10,000 vehicles from the regions roadways each weekday, said Todd Hemingson, Capital Metros vice president of strategic planning and development.

We think this plan will … maximize our land-use opportunities and build something thats expandable, he said.

Bus, rail services

The final LPA involves expanding Capital Metros existing services past its membership border, which ends near northern Travis County. Some services would use existing toll roads, including SH 130 and SH 45 N as well as the MoPac express lanes that will open in late 2015.

In January, Capital Metro launched its newest bus system, MetroRapid. This system could be extended to Round Rock and Georgetown from The Domain in North Austin.

Capital Metros Express bus, which primarily serves commuters travelling to and from downtown Austin via Park & Ride facilities, could also be expanded to Georgetowns existing Park & Ride on I-35. The Express service could be one of the first to launch in the North Corridor, Hemingson said.

The timing is about the same as the MoPac [express lanes]project opening, which is looking at end of next year, he said.

Round Rock Mayor Alan McGraw, who chaired the North Corridor planning team, said the goal is offering efficient alternatives.

If youre going to ask people to get out of their cars and get into some form of transit … the only way theyre going to do that is if you provide a [convenient]alternative to their automobile, he said.

Funding and organization

Ultimately it is up to each municipality benefiting from Project Connect services to devise a financial plan that could include local and federal funds.

Hemingson said Capital Metro likely would finance the system that is in its service area while outside jurisdictions would fund the portion that goes through their respective areas. Capital Metro will pursue federal funding through the Federal Transit Administration.

Nonmember cities will need to create an agreement or contract for services with Capital Metro and develop ways to finance and implement the services. Hemingson said the preferred option is for a jurisdiction to join Capital Metros service area. However, this requires dedicating 1 percent of a jurisdictions sales tax income to the agencya scenario Hemingson said is not likely.

More realistic options would involve creating an interlocal agreement or a local government corporation, Hemingson said. The jurisdictions could also choose to be an FTA fund recipient and receive federal funding for services. In all scenarios, jurisdictions could access their portion of the regions federal funding for eligible Project Connect expenses.

Were having to be very selective with Capital Metro and on what would be the best available options, Polasek said.

Capital Metro has been working with the city of Georgetown since the city was designated part of Austins urbanized area in 2012 and no longer qualified for services provided by the Capital Area Rural Transportation System, which provides transit in rural areas. Polasek said the city chose to pay an additional $110,000 per year to continue the demand-response CARTS service.

Polasek said Capital Metro is helping the city create a transit development plan to continue the demand-response CARTS service, start a fixed-route transit service in the city and look into commuter options to connect to Capital Metros services such as MetroRail. He said the city is prepared to spend $340,000 in the next fiscal year for expanded services.

Georgetowns history of working with Capital Metro will be beneficial, Polasek said.

When we do start looking at Project Connect and regional alternatives, we have that established relationship with Capital Metro and an understanding of cost and participation, he said.

Having options reinforces the North Corridor teams goal of not enforcing a one-size-fits-all solution.

The density in downtown Austin is obviously completely different from density youre going to see in Hutto, Pflugerville, Round Rock or Georgetown, McGraw said. We need to recognize there are differences in the region and try to make it all work together.

Phasing and implementation

Implementing Project Connect services in Georgetown will take time, Polasek said, and the city will have to consider a long-term plan to analyze all the details.

We will take time to develop this so we dont develop and spend money on a program that doesnt work, he said.

To implement the LPA, McGraw said it is key that the region stays united and engaged in the plan.

This cant be some plan you take and just put on a shelf and everybody forgets it, he said.

The planning team will make recommendations for the first and subsequent phases and indicate the capital costs and operations and maintenance expectations. Hemingson said he is optimistic about the plan coming to fruition.

As weve recognized, some [cities]are more ready than others, and some have more growing to do in terms of development to become transit-ready, he said. Over time well see transit in all of these communities.

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Amy Denney
Amy has been reporting in community journalism since 2007. She worked in the Chicago suburbs for three years before migrating south and joined Community Impact Newspaper in September 2010. Amy has been editor of the Northwest Austin publication since August 2012 and she is also the transportation beat reporter for the Austin area.
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