A few thoughts on Project Connect

So yesterday the Cap Metro board of directors approved the “vision map” for Project Connect, the ongoing planning effort to put in place a high-capacity transit system.

Here’s what it looks like:

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One of the key changes from the draft map that was rolled out a few months ago is the connection between the blue line and the orange line downtown. At the time, Dan Keshet pointed out that the lack of connection between two lines running so closely together would be a missed opportunity.

The orange line and the light blue line are the two parts that really matter. Those are the corridors designated for high-capacity transit than runs in pathways that are completely separate from other vehicle traffic. That might mean light rail or that might mean bus rapid transit (BRT) –– and it could even be autonomous rapid transit (ART). Whatever they are, they’re going to require a lot of money, both from local taxpayers and funding from the Federal Transit Administration.

The other lines on the map are less ambitious projects, and at least one of them is a project that Cap Metro likely has no plans of pursuing. The yellow line, the purple line, the navy blue line, the pink line, and the light green line are envisioned for BRT light. Basically, that’s something similar to the MetroRapid buses we now. Cap Metro is basically saying they’d like to get as many designated lanes as possible for these routes (similar to transit priority lanes that we have downtown now) but they recognize that that won’t always be possible due to political opposition (see the ongoing process to get a dedicated bus lane on the Drag).

The red line, of course, already exists. It is the highly inefficient commuter rail that runs from Leander to downtown. The dark green line is proposed to be something very similar –– a highly inefficient commuter rail running from downtown to Manor. I don’t believe that Cap Metro leadership is seriously considering this route but they have agreed to study it in response to political pressure to consider something for economically disadvantaged parts of eastern Travis County. County Commissioner Jeff Travilion, who sits on the Cap Metro board, represents the area and is a big supporter of the Green Line, but I doubt others will be willing to commit nearly $300 million to that project at the expense of others.

The big question, of course, is what kind of mode will Cap Metro ultimately propose for the blue and orange lines? The agency says it will study all three options: light rail, BRT and ART. However, suspicions abound that CEO Randy Clark and the agency’s board have already given up on rail. Over and over again, city, county and Cap Metro leaders keep saying not to get too focused on rail and that they want a plan that is “future-proof.”

If I had to guess, I’d say that the agency will come out in favor of a BRT plan with the idea that it will eventually transition to autonomous buses that can deliver even higher capacity at lower operating cost. But it’s early yet.

The goal is to have a plan to submit to voters in fall of 2020.

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