Cities look at funding, phasing options as next steps

By 2035 demographers estimate about 55 percent of the Central Texas region's 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 last several years to create a regional transportation plan.

"Mobility improvement is not only for people who use transit, but also for [drivers who] benefit from fewer cars on the road," said Martha Smiley, who previously served as the vice chairwoman for regional mobility for the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.

Achieving better regional mobility is part of the overarching Project Connect vision that will connect four counties and 13 cities, including Austin, 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.

On April 16, North Corridor planners—consisting of mayors and other elected and transportation officials—unveiled their locally preferred alternative, or LPA, map of proposed transit options to connect cities via bus and rail services.

"If we want to maintain prosperity, preserve the natural beauty and our quality of life, we've got to do something about our [traffic] congestion," said Linda Watson, president and CEO of Capital Metro, the city of Austin's transit agency. "We all know that one simple solution will not solve our congestion problem. We need it all: roads, but as importantly, transit."

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

"We think this plan will maximize our land-use opportunities and build something that's expandable," he said. "We need to build a plan that can be scaled accordingly."

North Corridor services

The final LPA involves expanding Capital Metro's existing services past its membership border, which ends roughly in 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, in Austin. This system could be extended north to Pflugerville from the Tech Ridge Center and to Georgetown from The Domain.

A proposed east-west route would connect the Howard Lane MetroRail station to the Tech Ridge Park & Ride. Smiley said these east-west connectors are an important part of the plan.

"It's a new way for people to get into the heart of the region," Smiley said.

Capital Metro's Express bus service, which primarily serves commuters traveling to and from downtown Austin via Park & Ride facilities, also could be expanded to connect the Howard Lane MetroRail station with downtown Austin using the MoPac express lanes. This 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 lane] project opening, which is looking at end of next year," he said.

Smiley said using transit is often based on people's past experience.

"If you get on a metro bus and it's easy to use and moving faster than people in their automobiles, I think you're going to like it," she said. "Getting people to do that may take time, but the more they experience transit the more they'll spread the word that this is a good alternative to the automobile."

Funding and organization

Ultimately it is up to each municipality benefitting from Project Connect services to determine a financial plan that could include local and federal funding.

Hemingson said Capital Metro likely would finance the system that is in its service area while each outside jurisdiction would fund the portion that goes through its area. 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. On April 23, Capital Metro's board of directors approved revisions to the agency's transit service that open the door for nonmember jurisdictions to access federal funding transit services, including for those outlined in Project Connect.

Hemingson said the preferred service option is for a jurisdiction to join Capital Metro's service area. However, this requires dedicating 1 percent of a jurisdiction's sales tax income to the agency—a scenario Hemingson said is not likely.

More realistic options would involve creating an interlocal agreement or local government corporation, which would have its own board of directions, Hemingson said. The jurisdictions could also choose to be an FTA recipient and receive federal funding for services. In all scenarios, jurisdictions could access their portion of the region's federal funding for eligible Project Connect expenses.

Having these options reinforces the North Corridor team's goal of not enforcing a one-size-fits-all solution for every city.

"The density in downtown Austin is obviously completely different from density you're going to see in Hutto, Pflugerville, Round Rock or Georgetown," said Round Rock Mayor Alan McGraw, who chaired the North Corridor planning team. " We need to recognize there are differences in the region and try to make it all work together."

Smiley said McGraw invited her and others from Travis County and the downtown core to participate in the planning of the North Corridor for this reason.

"By creating a process where people throughout the region were engaged, it caused us all to think much longer into the future rather than only about problems we might be seeing today," she said.

Phasing and implementation

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

"This can't be some plan you take and just put on a shelf and everybody forgets it," he said.

The planning team will come up with recommendations for the first and subsequent phases and indicate associated capital costs and operations and maintenance expectations. Although phasing is up to each jurisdiction, Hemingson said he is optimistic about seeing the plan come to fruition.

"As we've recognized, some of them are more ready than others, and some have more growing to do in terms of development to become transit ready," he said. "Over time we'll see transit in all of these communities."