Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization

The proposed route of the Project Connect rail makes three stops on the UT campus, one being nearby the Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium as seen in this illustration.  

Photo Credit: Project Connect | Courtesy Photo

Austin City Council voted unanimously Thursday to place the bond proposal for a 9.5 mile urban rail line, running from East Riverside to ACC Highland, on the ballot in November.

Subject to majority of voter approval, the proposal seeks $600 million in bonds for urban rail. With the deal, the city will work to obtain $400 million for additional road projects. The city will also apply for Federal Transportation Administration matching funds to bring $1 billion to Central Texas – $600 million to help augment the cost of the $1.38 billion urban rail. The project will not move forward without securing these funds.

Leffingwell said urban rail will cost each Austin household less than $15 per month in a press conference before the meeting.

“Our traffic problem is a big problem, and it requires a big solution,” Leffingwell said. “One hundred and ten people move to this city each day. We don’t have a transportation system to support that growth.”

Austin is ranked the fourth most congested city in the U.S. on the 2014 INRIX traffic scorecard.

The urban rail proposal is a part of Project Connect, a collaborative plan for Austin’s transportation system between the city, Capital Metro, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization and Lone Star Rail. Under the plan, Cap Metro launched the MetroRail and MetroRapid services.

“We feel confident we’ve chosen the best possible option for the first phase of urban rail,” Leffingwell said of the route in an interview with The Daily Texan on Wednesday.

The approved route will run along Trinity Street through downtown and travel on San Jacinto Boulevard through the UT campus. Three of the rail’s proposed stops are on campus at the future site of the Dell Medical School, Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium and on the northeast side of campus.

The San Jacinto Boulevard alignment through campus was recommended by the University to Project Connect through the 2012 Campus Master Plan.

Throughout the rail's planning, some Austin residents and students have advocated the first phase of the urban rail route run along Lamar Boulevard and Guadalupe Street to better serve the University population.

Leffingwell said that an impartial, data-driven process determined the route with the best chance of receiving Federal Transportation Administration funding. He re-emphasized that it would be impossible to obtain federal funds for a rail on Lamar and Guadalupe after $38 million was awarded in 2012 to put rapid buses there.

In addition, Leffingwell said planners are unwilling to face increased congestion by reducing Lamar to a two-lane road to accommodate rail’s dedicated guideway. Project lead Kyle Keahey said the city has set aside $5 million to study transit possibilities for the Lamar corridor.

At the meeting, several people spoke in opposition of the bond because it makes the road improvements a condition for the urban rail bond vote. Others said a comprehensive approach would be most effective.

“There is no other plan,” CAMPO representative John Langmore said at the Thursday press conference. “What is your vision for the future if you vote ‘no’ for this plan?”

This story has been updated to clarify the bond proposal.

A UT staff member argued that changes to existing bus routes associated with the introduction of MetroRapid have adversely affected Austin commuters at the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, known as CAMPO meeting Monday.

The CAMPO Transportation Policy Board schedules to meet every second Monday of the month to oversee the organization’s transportation programming. 

CapMetro bus routes changed Jan. 26 with the introduction of the MetroRapid 801 service. According to CapMetro, Route 801 replaced Route 101 North Lamar/South Congress. Routes 1L and 1M combined into Route 1 Metric/South Congress and will keep the former service stops for the new route. At the meeting, Marylin Harris, administrative associate at the Division of Statistics and Scientific Computation in the College of Natural Sciences, said she found problems with the CapMetro changes.

“[Commuters] have been impacted because of the change in the frequency of the local buses that make every stop, and the inconvenience of riding multiple buses where one bus used to take us everywhere we needed to go,” Harris said. “Those buses used to run every 11 to 12 minutes, making all local stops. Now you have a wait, a second wait or even a third wait for a bus, and your commute times are much longer.”

Harris said the 801 will not attract riders unless they can get all the way from the first point until the last point without transfers.

“There also should be an increase in the frequency of those local buses that make every stop, so that they can connect to the 801, so that we can make this transportation system work for the North Lamar/Guadalupe corridor,” Harris said.

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell said Harris should talk to CapMetro directly about the issues she raised.

“I think there are representatives here from that organization that you may want to talk to,” Leffingwell said.

One of those representatives, John Langmore, a CapMetro board member and a CAMPO executive management representative, said CapMetro is looking to improve MetroRapid services.

“We’ve obviously — based on some of the comments that we’ve heard tonight, and we’ve heard it from others — we need to do some tweaking to how that service is provided,” Langmore said. “But I’m sure we will get that right and get our customers happy shortly.”

Larry Schooler, Community Engagement Consultant for the City of Austin, speaks at a staff council meeting on Tuesday evening, which included input from the community to help with transportation problems throughout Austin. 

Photo Credit: Fabian Fernandez | Daily Texan Staff

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in a two-part series on transportation issues that Longhorns should pay attention to this semester. Read the first installment here.

On Sunday, Capital Metro launched its new MetroRapid service on the Drag. Featuring green-light priority technology that will reduce the time spent idling at red lights as well as free Wi-Fi on board, local leaders hope that the changes mean bus riders will be able to get where they’re going more quickly and more comfortably.

However, all that convenience doesn’t come cheap: Bus fare on the new service rose to $1.50, from the former $1.00 of the non-express buses, though students can still ride free with a swipe of their ID cards. 

A cheaper local route, the new Route 1 Metric/South Congress, will be avilable, but it will face competition from the new MetroRapid 801. 

Another issue that should give students pause: Part of the reason Project Connect, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s regional planning initiative, passed over the Drag was that Cap Metro had already taken money from the federal government to build MetroRapid along that route.

The Federal Transit Administration, which helps fund public transportation projects across the country, chipped in $38.1 million, or roughly 80 percent, of the service’s $47.6 million price tag. However, dumping that plan so close to completion in favor of a completely different approach — a rail line — for the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor, which a Project Connect study ranked third in terms of need for transportation improvements, would have angered or, at the very least, perplexed federal officials.

Gross admitted the Guadalupe/Lamar corridor will need additional improvements in the future, but Kyle Keahey, Project Connect's urban rail lead, added, “The Lamar/Guadalupe corridor doesn’t currently have the traffic needed to support steel wheels [urban rail].” In other words, the Drag is set on the transportation front. Project Connect isn’t hanging its hat up yet, though. According to Keahey, the team will review service along key corridors every five years to ensure current needs are being met.

We welcome this continued attention, but it seems strange that the city wants to place a rail line along such a lightly traveled route rather than the high-traffic Drag.

As long as UT exists, demand along the Drag will remain constant. So how did the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor finish third in Project Connect’s ranking of corridors? According to Jace Deloney, a founder and executive committee member of Austinites for Urban Rail Action, the surprising result can be attributed to three factors that he says skewed the results: 1) the exclusion of West Campus from the corridor, 2) the overweighting of percentage growth (rather than absolute density) and 3) the modeling used to project future growth.

On this third point, Deloney explained, “Project Connect used [Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization] projections … Those typically favor large, undeveloped parcels because they’re easy to develop.”

But, Deloney cautioned, Project Connect assumed that these pieces of land would be built on, even if they didn’t have such a guarantee from a developer. 

“These figures are aspirational, not predictions,” Deloney said. “They’re not tied to reality.” 

Clearly, the Drag and the western edge of campus form a high-density and busy area that already struggles to serves the needs of students to move from one area to another, and although we are glad the corridor is not being ignored, we still stand by our support for attention to demand where it exists today. 

The Drag’s issues will not be solved by any single route — bus or rail — so stopping at either one is just a Band-Aid on the growing problem. Though FTA funding was only part of the reason urban rail failed on the Drag, the use of MetroRapid to the near-term exclusion of rail misses the fundamental fact that both may be needed to solve Austin’s traffic troubles. To get ahead of the increasing need for transportation to and from campus, we need to consider several projects, even if they overlap. We don’t have to just accept that the traffic issue is too big to solve.

City and transportation officials released a transit plan intended to unite the Central Texas region Friday.

At a press conference Friday, Mayor Lee Leffingwell said within 15 years, the city will link Austin to Georgetown, Round Rock, Leander, Oak Hill, Kyle, Buda, San Marcos and San Antonio through commuter, urban and regional rail lines.

A portion of the planned urban rail line will run along San Jacinto Boulevard, cutting through the UT campus. Another portion will run along Guadalupe Street with stops at Dean Keeton Street and near the West Mall. The rail will also provide service along East Riverside Drive and South Congress Avenue.

The transit plan also includes express lanes for motor vehicles on MoPac Boulevard and Interstate 35.

“The plan is attainable. Now, we have to make it happen,” Leffingwell said. “We must make this a priority.”

The plan was created by Project Connect, a regional collaborative organization that includes the city of Austin, Capital Metro, the Lone Star Rail District and Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, known as CAMPO.

Formed in 2011, Project Connect’s purpose  is to implement a portion of CAMPO’s 2035 Regional Transportation Plan, which aims to address Central Texas’ public transportation needs as the population grows. The Transit Working Group, a subcommittee of CAMPO led by Leffingwell, advised Project Connect on the plan.

John Langmore, board vice chair of Capital Metro and the Transit Working Group, said the region’s transportation infrastructure is not keeping pace with its growth.

“Every time you travel in your car, you become painfully aware of that,” Langmore said.

The Austin metropolitan statistical area’s population grew from about 1.25 million in 2000 to 1.7 million in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Population is expected to grow to 2.3 million in 2020 and 3 million in 2030, according to projections provided by the Texas State Data Center.

Langmore said city leaders do not have a total estimate of how much the transit plan would cost, but that the urban rail project would cost about $550 million.

According to Langmore, the city and Capital Metro would apply for federal grants to help pay for construction costs.

Langmore said many elements of the project have differing completion dates. He said Capital Metro’s rapid bus project will be completed in 2014 with routes on South Congress Avenue, North Lamar Avenue and Guadalupe Street. He said urban rail with service to the UT area would open during 2020 at the earliest.

Published on February 4, 2013 as "Regional urban rail to link nearby towns".

Will Shumaker, a student at Garza High School, works on a broken shifter cable at Yellow Bike Project Monday morning. Yellow Bike Project implemented a free bike share program in 1997, but the city plans to create a more secure kiosk stations where visitors and citizens can rent bikes throughout Austin.

Photo Credit: Shannon Kintner | Daily Texan Staff

Austinites will soon have a new way to travel around downtown through the upcoming Bike Share Program between a local bike shop and a city organization.

The program began in December when the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization agreed to give a $1.5 million grant to a private partner if they were willing to raise an additional $500,000 to get the program started. Craig Staley, general manager of Lance Armstrong’s Mellow Johnny’s Bike Shop, said he offered to be the private partner and has received sponsorships from Austin companies to support the program.

“We all think of Austin as a big cyclist city and know it is cheaper to paint a white stripe down the road for a new bike lane than it is to buy more buses that will congest downtown anyway,” Staley said.

Bike Share kiosks will be set up where customers can rent bikes to ride to their destinations and then leave at another kiosk, where the bike sharing cycle continues, he said.

The Bike Share Program should not be confused with Austin’s Yellow Bike Project from 1997, which was similar but less secure and soon had all of its bikes stolen.

“The Bike Share Program and the Yellow Bike Project are like two completely different animals,” Staley said. “We are a business. They were a community activist organization that wanted to offer free bikes and hoped everyone would be honest.”

Staley said the Bike Share Program will start with about 450 bikes placed at different kiosks around downtown and East Austin. Staley said Bike Share members will pay about $60-70 a year, with no usage fees for the first 30 minutes of use per day. Nonmembers can pay about $10 to rent a bike for a day. Weekly rentals may be offered, too, Staley said.

“A weekly rental will be great for tourists here for South By Southwest to get around,” Staley said.

Staley said GPS systems will be installed in the bikes to prevent stealing.

“About 400 cities around the world use this system and 20 so far in the U.S,” Staley said. “We talked to many of them, and out of the hundreds of bikes in each city only about one or two are stolen.”

Sara Hartley, Public Works Department spokeswoman, said CAMPO probably offered the grant because there are numbers to prove the security of the system.

“CAMPO offered the grant, but the planning and application of the program is really in the hands of the companies sponsoring it,” Hartley said. “Research shows the success rate of this system is really high around the world and I think that’s what really helped in getting this grant.”

There are no plans to place kiosks on the UT campus in the first wave of the program’s implementation, but Staley said he hopes to eventually put about 15 around UT, especially in West Campus.

“I would definitely use the [Bike Share Program],” said advertising junior Benita Zhang. “Especially so I don’t have to walk back home late at night when the buses stop running.”