Regional transit plan to provide travel choices

Routes would connect suburbs to Austin, 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. The goal of Project Connect is to provide residents with choices when traveling regionally and to improve 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.

Georgetown City Councilwoman Patty Eason said that the region's economic development relies on being able to effectively and efficiently move people, goods and services and that the area needs a multimodal transportation strategy to stay connected.

"It's been clearly determined that highways can't be the only answer, not only because of the expense involved, but there's just no room to keep expanding," she 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 regional transportation plans such as Project Connect.

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, Round Rock Mayor Alan McGraw 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.

Georgetown Transportation Services Director Ed Polasek said the region does not have a generation that grew up on transit and is used to using it.

"The biggest issue is capacity on [I-35], and the biggest challenge is the willingness [of motorists] to get out of their cars and be dependent on transit and getting [people] to where they need to go," he said. "We have to work on that change if we're going to have transit be successful in Georgetown."

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 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 the Lone Star Rail District, a regional rail group, 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.

Lone Star Rail District

On June 25, Georgetown City Council approved pulling its membership from the LSRD in a 6-1 vote. The city had been a member of the district for six years.

LSRD Rail Director Joseph Black said that by dissolving its membership in the district and giving up its seat on the board of directors, the city would lose its chance to help plan the system. Membership dues from cities pay for feasibility and environmental studies as well as legal work related to the rail project.

Black also warned that the district's board may choose to halt environmental studies to bring the rail system to Georgetown and prioritize future plans to go to Hutto and Taylor ahead of plans to build to Georgetown.

Despite the council's decision, Hemingson said the city could eventually change its mind about being included in the LSRD, so the North Corridor maps still indicate regional rail stopping in Georgetown. He said the Project Connect system map shows rail still makes sense in the long run.

"While it is disappointing and it may not bode well for public transportation in that area, from a study perspective it doesn't have a major impact," he said.

The North Corridor maps indicate that Lone Star Rail would run on the Union Pacific line through Austin and into Round Rock where it would then run on the former MoKan rail line right of way to Georgetown.

Eason said Lone Star Rail will be built, but the question remains as to whether Georgetown will get a station.

"If we don't, we're cut off from economic development, we're cut off from learning, accessing medical institutions more easily and effectively and efficiently," she said. "It would be a serious problem for Georgetown if we were not involved."

Eason voted in favor of leaving the district, but said she did so she can bring the item back to City Council for reconsideration.

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.

Polasek said he has been focused on local transportation efforts such as trying to work out a deal with Capital Metro to replace the Capital Area Regional Transportation System on-demand bus service that the city recently lost and working with the Texas Department of Transportation for better north-south connectivity.

"This Project Connect North [Corridor] is really kind of a compilation of all those efforts," he said. "It's synthesizing or pulling together all of these different planning efforts. If it can help get funding for some type of better commuter service in the future with Capital Metro or Lone Star Rail or whoever provides the service, I'm all for it."

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.

Hemingson said the North Corridor team 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.

The North Corridor maps introduce a new bus service called Connect, designed for shorter trips with more frequent stops on arterial roads such as FM 1460. One route will connect Georgetown to Leander and Cedar Park via FM 1431. Polasek said he had asked about including that east-west connection because a lot of residents of Cedar Park and Leander commute to work in downtown Georgetown.

"With all of the development on [FM] 1431 and future development on Leander Road in Georgetown, having some alternative to traditional automobile traffic is going to be probably necessary, especially with what's going on with fuel [prices] and our ability to build roads, which is really getting limited because of the funding situation," Polasek said.

During the summer, the North Corridor team will hone the details of cost, operation, ridership, economic effect and environmental issues and 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, Polasek 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.

Additional reporting by Beth Wade

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 groups 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 their 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 is chairwoman of the Project Connect executive committee.

Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority

The Mobility Authority is an independent state 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 LSRD was officially formed in 2003. LSRD is planning a regional and commuter 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.