Routes would connect city core to suburbs and activity centers

Key regional public transit players have nailed down the framework for a long-term plan designed to give residents a variety of options for traveling throughout Central Texas.

Dubbed Project Connect, the $4 billion plan would include urban, commuter and regional rail as well as a variety of bus services such as the MetroRapid high-capacity service that transit agency Capital Metro is rolling out in early 2014. The goal of Project Connect is to provide residents with choices when traveling regionally while improving mobility.

Todd Hemingson, Capital Metro's vice president of strategic planning and development, said one of the reasons Project Connect came about was to build a consensus around a single vision for transit rather than implementing plans piecemeal.

"To the degree that the whole region can unite behind a common plan, we're all much better off," Hemingson said.

Dan Dawson, vice president of marketing and communications at Capital Metro, said the system should make it easy, simple and fast for people to travel throughout the region, whether they are moving east to west or traveling from one of the activity centers to downtown Austin.

"The bottom line is that what Capital Metro wants to do as sort of the leader of [public] transportation in Central Texas is to unite all these towns and cities together under this one common vision so that for your average person, it's a seamless trip," he said.

System-level plan

The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization—which is responsible for coordinating regional transportation planning in Bastrop, Burnet, Caldwell, Hays, Travis and Williamson counties—created the Transit Working Group in 2007 to evaluate and provide input on Project Connect and other regional transportation plans.

The TWG consists of Central Texas stakeholders such as elected officials and representatives from cities and organizations. Its members include TWG Chairman and Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Councilman Bill Spelman, Travis County Commissioner Bruce Todd and Hays County Commissioner Will Conley, who also serves as chairman of CAMPO's policy board.

The TWG also includes Bobby Jenkins, the former chairman of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce board, and Sid Covington, chairman of the Lone Star Rail District executive committee.

On June 7, the TWG approved the framework for funding, organizing and mapping out the vision of Project Connect. The plan ultimately will go to CAMPO for approval and inclusion in its 2040 long-range plan.

"This is a regional effort, and I'm highly mindful of that; I'm also mindful that the region is one of the fastest-growing in the country," Leffingwell said during the

June 7 TWG meeting. "Outside of the city of Austin's boundaries, the area has grown 2 1/2 times faster than the city. We have to acknowledge that."

North Corridor

Hemingson said Project Connect is the bird's-eye view of adding regional transit services, but within it are five corridors that will provide a more detailed picture into the needs of specific parts of the region.

The North Corridor, which includes the area from downtown Austin to Georgetown and which is bounded by MoPac and I-35 on the west and SH 130 on the east, was deemed the highest priority for the area.

During several community engagement events June 24–26, the North Corridor team unveiled three proposed transit maps outlining the different types of service that could run through the area.

Capital Metro, the city of Austin and regional rail group Lone Star Rail District signed interlocal agreements this spring to formalize their partnership for spearheading Project Connect.

Funding will come from the agencies as well as the partner communities that sign on to bring service to their area.

"One of the unique things about this project is—unlike when we do studies within Capital Metro—this one really can't go forward unless the communities are on board," Hemingson said.

Creating the maps

Transportation planners, elected officials and other stakeholders from cities and organizations in the North Corridor region were involved in the corridor's planning.

The North Corridor team used travel patterns and employment, population and land-use data to create three maps that outline possible options for new bus or rail service. The maps include three types of bus service—Express, Rapid and Connect—plus commuter and regional rail to connect Austin with Round Rock, Pflugerville, Georgetown, Hutto, Manor and Webberville.

Hemingson said the North Corridor does not just focus on transporting commuters to and from Austin's core, but also on offering east-west travel options and transit to and from activity and employment centers.

"When we started, we thought the focus would be from the outlying areas to the urban core, and what we found as we dug into both the data and heard from the community is that's one need, but there's also these other needs of connecting across the corridor and then linking the centers together," he said.

In addition to MetroRapid, the North Corridor plan includes expanding Capital Metro's Express bus service, which is designed to operate on highways and to travel between suburbs and cities. Service could be extended north from the Tech Ridge Park & Ride into Pflugerville, Round Rock and Georgetown.

Initially, Express bus service would run on MoPac and eventually use the roadway's toll lanes when they are completed. Hemingson said the North Corridor team also included the possibility of Express bus service using future toll lanes on I-35. Using toll lanes would give the Express service a speed and reliability advantage superior to other vehicles on the road.

"One, I think the demand over time is going to be able to support both MoPac and [I-35], and then two, it's symbolic in a way that we really wanted to emphasize to our partners that we think providing some type of travel time advantage through the building of an express lane on [I-35] is really important," he said.

The North Corridor maps introduce a new bus service called Connect, designed for shorter trips with more frequent stops on arterial roads such as Howard Lane and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Many of the bus services could connect to MetroRail at the Howard Lane station and move people in and out of downtown Austin.

In cases where more high-capacity bus service or rail did not necessarily make sense, Hemingson said the plan is to start with Connect, which requires less capital and less intensive operations. As demand builds over time, he said more high-capacity forms of transportation such as Rapid or rail could be implemented. During the summer, the North Corridor team will hone the details of cost, operation, ridership, economic effect and environmental issues and will compare the three alternatives.

In the fall, the team will come back to the community with a locally preferred alternative that could be one of the three maps or features from each, Hemingson said. The final map could receive approval by late fall or winter, and it would also be incorporated into CAMPO's 2040 long-range plan, which is a requirement for federally funded or regionally significant projects, he said.

Land use

The North Corridor team also considered the growth centers developed by CAMPO for its long-range plan. These centers are areas of growth that would connect to public transit. Part of the analysis included reviewing each city in the North Corridor for its comprehensive land-use plan and how land has been zoned for development.

David Taylor, senior vice president with HDR Engineering Inc., which is providing technical assistance for planning the North Corridor, said the goal is to see how land use and development would line up with the placement of Project Connect services.

"Transit can do two things: It can chase land use, or transit can change land use. We have opportunities to grow over time," Taylor said.

Hemingson said the North Corridor team tried to coordinate future development with planning the type of transit and the frequency of service. The city of Austin's Imagine Austin comprehensive plan was also reviewed to see how the two plans relate.

"It was mutually reinforcing," he said. "They're trying to build compact and connected communities that are transit-focused, and we're trying to build the transit that supports compact and connected communities."

Behind the wheel

Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization

CAMPO coordinates regional transportation planning in Bastrop, Burnet, Caldwell, Hays, Travis and Williamson counties and with Capital Metro, the Capital Area Rural Transportation System and the Texas Department of Transportation. CAMPO is governed by its policy board, which consists of regional and local officials. CAMPO is responsible for approving a long-range transportation plan every five years as well as short-range plans for transportation improvement.

Transit Working Group

Created by CAMPO in 2007, the TWG provides input and feedback on regional transportation plans, including Project Connect. It is led by Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, and other members include elected officials and stakeholders in the Central Texas region.

Project Connect

This is a partnership of several Central Texas transportation agencies to create a regional transit plan. Capital Metro, the city of Austin and the Lone Star Rail District signed interlocal agreements this spring to formalize the partnership and be recognized as the three main agencies involved.

North Corridor

Within Project Connect are five corridors that will provide specific detail of which types of transit service are appropriate in each corridor. The North Corridor was deemed the most important, and that area is bounded by MoPac, I-35 and SH 130 from downtown Austin to Georgetown. Two committees of transportation planners, elected officials and other stakeholders in the North Corridor study area are involved in the corridor's planning.

Capital Metro

Established in 1985, Capital Metro is the region's public transportation provider of bus service and the MetroRail service that runs from downtown Austin to Leander. It is the lead agency in Project Connect, and President/CEO Linda Watson chairs the Project Connect executive committee.

Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority

The Mobility Authority is an independent government agency created in 2002 and focuses on multimodal transportation solutions in Travis and Williamson counties. It oversees the MoPac Improvement Project, which will add one toll lane in each direction on MoPac from Parmer Lane to Lady Bird Lake and will allow buses to use the toll lanes for free.

Lone Star Rail District

In 1997, the Texas Legislature approved creating an Austin-San Antonio rail district, and the Lone Star Rail District was officially formed in 2003. LSRD is planning a regional rail line that would run from San Antonio to Georgetown. Its board of directors includes elected officials from cities and counties that would be served by the rail line, as well as representatives from Capital Metro and CAMPO.