A group of Central Texas transportation authorities have joined together to address high-capacity transit through a program they're calling Project Connect.

The partnership between Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, Capital Metro, the Lone Star Rail District and the City of Austin is an effort to not only implement the CAMPO 2035 plan, but also to address a growing need to get people to and from work in the face of worsening congestion.

"If you can't get them there [job centers], then you've got an economic problem," said Jacob Dirr, City of Austin Transportation Department public information specialist

The problem is that I-35 is already heavily congested, and transportation officials project the region's population will double by 2035. The most obvious solution—make the roads bigger—simply is not tenable.

"You can't expand the highway because you're going to knock stuff over," Dirr said, pointing to the number of socially and economically important buildings, cemeteries and athletic complexes that line I-35 through Austin.

A 2009 study by the Texas Department of Transportation showed that I-35 from US 183 to Hwy. 71 was the fourth most congested road in the state. No other Austin-area road ranked higher than 24th in the study.

"Congestion is just a symptom; it's a capacity issue," said Joseph Black, rail director of the Lone Star Rail District. "We're already a little bit behind the curve."

Ideas being explored include regional rail services, a commuter rail like the Capital MetroRail, urban rail, bus rapid transit and express managed lanes.

Officials from the four organizations face a number of hurdles in catching up, not the least of which is funding.

CAMPO Director Maureen McCoy said Project Connect will likely tackle financing and organizational structure over the next couple of months, but how these projects could be financed remains the big, open-ended question.

"It's going to cost," said Surinder Marwah, principal long-range planner for Capital Metro, "and these communities are going to have to pitch in."

The costs could be significant. Black estimates that improvements to a rail line to turn it into a regional commuter line would cost $600 million–$800 million, and that is after the construction of an approximately $1.5 billion freight line that would be needed to divert freight traffic off of the new commuter line. While Black said some portion of the freight rail costs would be paid by Union Pacific, communities would have to shoulder some of the local operations and maintenance costs for any commuter stops in their town.

Government entities in Williamson County, for the most part, seem unwilling to do so at this time. Only Leander is a member of Capital Metro—which requires a 1-cent dedicated sales tax to join—and only Georgetown is a member of Lone Star—which costs $50,000 a year.

At the same time, these groups have to contend with local, more focused transportation and development plans that might not mesh with Project Connect.

Along with CAMPO's own 2035 plan, Project Connect has to contend with the Round Rock General Plan 2020, the Georgetown 2030 Comprehensive Plan, the San Marcos Master Plan, the Kyle Comprehensive Plan, the Leander 2010 Comprehensive Plan Update, the Pflugerville 2030 Comprehensive plan, the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan and more.

McCoy said reconciling those plans was part of Project Connect's focus.

"We start way early on, and we talk to our regional partners," she said. "Sometimes we get abnormalities. We bring that to their attention."

Round Rock

But all of the convergence in the world doesn't help if local authorities do not buy into the plan, and Round Rock's participation still remains up in the air.

Round Rock Mayor Alan McGraw said they were still receiving a lot of information that had to be considered.

McCoy said they needed local buy-in.

"We can't force it. No one ever wants to come down from above," she said.

But, she said, "If Round Rock doesn't agree with it, what are their options?"

Take Lone Star Rail, for example. Black presented a proposal at the Round Rock Project Connect open house that would create a commuter rail that could connect Georgetown all the way to San Antonio.

However, Round Rock is not a member of the rail district and Williamson County is not any longer. Georgetown, Black said, is the only Williamson County city that is a member of the district.

Consequently, Lone Star's plan includes scouted locations for potential rail stops in Round Rock, but if the rail were built tomorrow, the passenger trains would travel right through the city.

"I think it's going to happen," Black said of Round Rock eventually joining the district. "I think people will see a train blowing through town and go to their political leaders."

Similarly, Round Rock has not dedicated the 1-cent sales tax necessary to join Capital Metro, nor could it with its current tax set-up. All of the city's legally allowable sales tax money is spoken for.

"What I hope is it's not a predetermined answer, and we're going through all this to get to the predetermined answer," McGraw said.