AURA Board Member and Multimodal Citizen Advisory Committee member Susan Somers offers her suggestions on responding to the latest Project Connect survey.
In April, Capital Metro released a survey about potential high-capacity transit corridors under study as part of their Project Connect planning process. The survey allows community members to help "choose the corridors" that will move to Phase 2 of the project as finalists. During Phase 1, Cap Metro has gathered together transit proposals from the past 20 years and assigned quantitative metrics to rank each project. Community feedback on the various corridors is the qualitative aspect of Phase 1 and the survey is a vital aspect of that feedback. As a member of Project Connect's Multimodal Citizen Advisory Committee, I have heard that some urbanists have been unsure how to respond to the survey. So I thought I'd provide a handy guide on how to respond.
First off, let's review some of the basics about Project Connect:
- This Project Connect study is a new process; the failed 2014 road-rail bond is no more.
- Project Connect is studying both new high-capacity transit investment corridors and enhancements to current high-capacity transit; this survey and blog post address only the investment corridors portion of Project Connect
- "High capacity transit" can mean rail, bus rapid transit, or other modes (gondola, anyone?). Project Connect Phase 1 is mode neutral; mode options for the corridors that advance will be studied in Phase 2.
- We've been told that the ultimate goal is to identify multiple projects and create a system master plan for high capacity transit—potentially in the multi-billion dollar range. (Of course, once you create a master plan, then phasing becomes an important concern for urbanists. We want to make sure the most cost-effective, high-ridership lines get built first.)
- The investment corridors are divided into three categories. "Commuter" corridors connect suburban areas outside Austin with central Austin. "Connector" corridors are within Austin and correspond with major city streets. "Circulator" corridors move people around within a specific, concentrated business district—usually downtown. Some urbanists and transit advocates have criticized this tripartite breakdown, since it seems to ensure that high-subsidy "Commuter" corridors will make their way into the final package.
- Cap Metro has already released the Phase 1 quantitative analysis and proposed finalists for Phase 2 (see image below). However, there is still the opportunity to lobby for additional routes through the survey tool, with adjustments likely to happen before the final list of corridors goes before the Cap Metro board at their June meeting.
Now on to the survey!
Question 1: Which of these commuter corridors would you support to meet community needs? Select up to three corridors.
I can't recommend investment in any commuter corridors at this juncture. Austin taxpayers should not utilize precious resources to subsidize transit lines that will only serve those outside the city and Cap Metro service area, create safety issues for pedestrians attempting to access stations, and incentivize sprawl. Additionally, some of the proposed lines (in particular I-35 Bus Rapid Transit) will require the support and collaboration of TxDOT, a dubious partner that has historically shown little interest in transit. Also note that the Union Pacific line was effectively ruled out when UP backed out of their agreement with the Lone Star Rail district in early 2016. The bottom line: bear in mind that our current commuter rail service, the Red Line, already posts a staggeringly high per-rider subsidy. When Cap Metro implemented the Red Line, they had to cut bus routes and frequency elsewhere. Like the Red Line, these commuter corridors are likely to require riders to drive to a park and ride from their home, board the line, and upon arriving downtown, undertake either a long walk or board a circulator route. Evidence shows us that the more transfers like that, the less likely an individual is to choose the commuter service over their car. Thus my doubts that any of these lines will generate high ridership. Although I expect that in the coming months we'll hear that innovative partnerships may emerge to cover construction costs for some of these lines, I'm concerned that the operational costs will kill Cap Metro's bottom line and kill our chances for true urban light rail in the future. If you feel compelled to choose a commuter corridor, choose the Airport line. Rail to airports, although often a popular concept with the public, has been a losing financial proposition for many cities. However, this particular iteration of airport rail may at least merit further study.
Question 2: Which of these connector corridors would you support to meet community needs? Select up to 5 corridors.
AURA recommends selecting "connector corridors" based on bus lines with high ridership. Keeping in mind that we're still mode-neutral until Phase 2, high ridership rail lines save CapMetro money on operational costs since more people fit on light rail vehicles than on buses. Cities that build rail that has high ridership on day 1 can reallocate operational dollars back into the bus network, and will have the finances and political buy-in to build additional rail lines in the future. Cities that build low-ridership rail will struggle to build future lines, and may have to cut bus service (as Cap Metro did after the Red Line). The data at hand shows us that the 801 and 803 corridors are our highest-ridership bus lines: that's why they were selected for MetroRapid service. Riverside is also a high-ridership line surrounded by residential density; that's why it's proposed as the next MetroRapid expansion. So that would give us: North Lamar/Guadalupe, 45th/Burnet, S. Lamar, Riverside and Congress. That's all five choices. The good news is that all five of these routes are currently slated to advance to Phase 2. (As seen in the image above, right now, the finalists, based on the quantitative analysis alone, would be N. Lamar/Guadalupe, Highland/Red River/Trinity, Congress, Riverside, 7th/Lake Austin, Manor/Dean Keeton, 45th/Burnet, and S. Lamar.) However, there are two other corridors at risk of being cut out of Phase 2 that deserve a chance to advance. Those two corridors are Pleasant Valley and Oltorf. Why? Both are fairly high ridership corridors. Pleasant Valley in particular serves low income families. And both of these routes provide coverage of areas of the city not served in the projected finalist group. By swapping in Pleasant Valley and/or Oltorf when you vote, you help bolster the argument a number of MCAC members have made for these corridors to be analyzed in Phase 2. Ultimately, any of the seven corridors I've discussed here are very valid options for your vote.
Question 3: Which of these circulator corridors would you support to meet community needs? Select up to two corridors.
I recommend the Downtown Circulator. Ever since the 'Dillo service was canceled, Austin has lacked a downtown circulator to help distribute commuters and visitors around the Central Business District. With most lines running along a central corridor, circulator routes could be a boon for potential riders who need to get to the far ends of downtown. They could also prove an excellent resource for people who need to make short trips during the day. I recommend the circulator be free of charge. Collecting fares on a short route will bog down the boarding process and slow the circulators to the point of uselessness. The beginning of fare collection on the 'Dillo was widely—and accurately—regarded as the death knell for the service. Capital Metro should not make the same mistake twice.