Project Connect seeks transportation ideas

December 9, 2011  

pustelnyk2

Steve Pustelnyk of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority

by Ann Fowler

The first of several open houses on transportation solutions for Central Texas was held Tuesday at Bowie High School. Dozens of citizens braved freezing temperatures to meet with local officials to hear about suggested plans and provide input.

Project Connect is a joint effort by local agencies, including the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, Capital Metro, the city of Austin, Lone Star Rail and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, to combine efforts and come up with a system of transportation choices that will work together to serve the community.

The goal of Project Connect is to build consensus on solutions to regional high-capacity transit.

Transportation officials at the Open House included Todd Hemingson, vice president of planning for Capital Metro, Joe Back, rail operations manager for Lone Star Rail, and Steve Pustelnyk, director of communications at the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority.

Suggestions included:

• Regional rail from Georgetown to Austin to San Antonio

• Commuter rail similar to the Leander to Austin MetroRail Red Line

• Urban rail, a hybrid between light rail and streetcars

• Bus rapid transit, which operates longer buses with technology to speed up the trip

• Mopac’s express lanes

Hemingson said at the conclusion of Project Connect, possibly next May, the identified travel corridors, such as Mopac to Circle C and U.S. 290 West through the ‘Y,’ won’t be a final answer, but a statement of preference. “For the southwest corridor, what are the problems that we’re trying to solve?” he asked. “Congestion? Peak hour congestion? Getting downtown? Local movement? We want to understand all the issues within the corridor, then look at the tools in the toolbox.”

Hemingson said regional and commuter rail was unlikely for Oak Hill. Urban rail is a possibility in the long term. More likely is the local use of Bus Rapid Transit, and the benefit from Mopac’s express lanes. He said these tolled lanes could ease traffic for southwest Austin commuters.

According to Hemingson, local transportation officials must follow a specific development process to qualify for federal funds:

• Create a regional plan

• Create a system plan

• Conduct corridor studies

• Create a preliminary design with an environmental analysis

• Create the final design

• Construct

• Operate

One current problem for Oak Hill, he said, is finding the site for the Oak Hill Flyer park and ride. The current site, at William Cannon and U.S. 290 West, will not be available when TxDOT begins intersection improvements at that location in 2012 or 2013. “We’ve looked far and wide” for a new site, Hemingson said, but conversations with Austin Community College, HEB and Seton Southwest have not turned up a new site. The developers of the West Park PUD at U.S. 290 West and FM 1826 have expressed interest, he said, but the date of availability is unclear.

For many current bus riders, future ridership could depend on which side of the ‘Y’ the facility is located. The original site at the Oak Hill Plaza was south of the ‘Y.’ When the site moved to its current location at William Cannon, the Oak Hill Flyer lost several riders who said if they had to drive through the ‘Y’ to get to and from the bus, they might as well just drive to work.

If and when a new site is discovered, likely on the south side of the ‘Y,’ some riders like Donna Lee will only continue to ride as long as her stop near Old Fredericksburg remains. “Driving ten minutes south to go north makes no sense for me,” she said.

Lee has seen the number of stops at Old Fredericksburg cut in half in the past year, with a corresponding drop in riders at that stop due to the lack of convenience. Capital Metro took away nearly half of the non-Park-and-Ride stops as a trade off for a noon-time bus from downtown to the Oak Hill Park and Ride.

Lee was unable to attend the open house, but said Capital Metro should work at increasing current bus ridership before introducing faster — and more expensive — alternatives. She believes Oak Hill is already underserved by the transit agency and would like to see Capital Metro build up ridership rather than decrease service. She suggested that the agency hand out free passes to introduce non-riders to public transit. Commuters who experience the convenience of relaxing and reading on the way to and from work will be hooked, she said.

Her theory may be correct. The MetroRail saw a significant ridership spike last March during South by Southwest. Although ridership dropped the following month, it was still markedly higher than before SXSW, possibly because locals had a chance to sample rail during the special event and opted to continue using it for everyday commutes.

Hemingson liked the idea of handing out free passes to increase ridership on existing bus lines. He added that studies have shown that conversion to bus ridership is most successful with those who have just moved to an area.

Joe Black of Lone Star Rail discussed the proposed L Star, saying it largely uses existing Southern Pacific track. He said stops in Buda and Kyle could move commuters off the road and onto the train. He also envisioned use by local college students.

Brodie Lane resident Steve Zoromsky told Capital Metro’s John-Michael Cortez that he overheard one attendee say that it would be cheaper to buy a single-engine plane for every commuter between Austin and San Antonio than it will be to build the proposed rail — estimated at $2 billion.

Zoromsky said his commute on Monday was diverted this week by the police drama near Bowie High School, with traffic becoming increasingly congested as drivers sought alternate routes.

Attendees were invited to view a transit map and advise planners of needed options. One Open House attendee drew officials his proposal to create a subway system around and to the downtown area — including a section under Ladybird Lake.

Others suggested including Dripping Springs and Bee Caves in transit planning.

For more information on Project Connect and its partners, see http://connectcentraltexas.com/.


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