Guest Post: Project Connect Raises Concerns

July 25, 2014 by Kate Harrington

As Austin has grown, so too have its traffic woes. While some road projects are taking shape, waiting for the time and funding it would take to add adequate road capacity doesn’t seem like a plausible solution. However, if voters give their approval this fall, there may be another option on the table.

Project Connect, a proposed high capacity, regional transit system, hopes to solve some of the region’s traffic problems. But is its proposed first phase, the Central Corridor, planned in such a way to get voter approval? Some transit advocates worry that the proposed alignment has been rushed, and isn’t fiscally sustainable. Project Connect advocates say the 9.5-mile line will offer a reliable alternative to driving and will take thousands of cars off the roads, while also providing a backbone on which to expand regional transit.

Building ATX is excited to host two guest posts about Project Connect, with experts on both sides weighing in. This editorial comes from Jace Deloney, founder of Austinites for Urban Rail Action (AURA).

(See another perspective, from Downtown Austin Alliance’s Charles Betts, by clicking here)


1) There’s been a lot of debate among transit advocates concerning potential routes for the first phase of a Central Austin transit system. In a nutshell, can you summarize where AURA feels the proposed system needs to go, and why? 

AURA has not taken an official position on where the next high-capacity transit investment in the Central Corridor should go. During Phase 1 of this process, we asked that Lamar be included in the more route-based studies that occurred in Phase 2 of the process. AURA supporters believed that the level of analysis conducted during Phase 1 led to questionable outcomes, and believed it was important that the East Riverside, Highland, and Lamar sub-corridors be advanced together. Project Connect staff has admitted numerous times that they would have conducted a route-based study for all of the sub-corridors if they had been given more time to complete the project. Sadly, the Mayor’s push to get an urban rail bond election on the November ballot has caused the Project Connect team to have to cut corners, which has resulted in numerous data quality issues.

While we have not taken an official position on where our next urban rail investment should go, many of us believe that we should simply be putting rail where it requires the least amount of operating subsidy. Using this approach will allow Capital Metro to use their existing operating budget to provide more mobility to more people.

One of the things that worries AURA members about the current urban rail plan is that, if approved, it could end up jeopardizing the fiscal capacity and political will to achieve the entire Project Connect Transit Vision. If we put rail where it requires a high operating subsidy, we may be forced to reduce transit service to other parts of the transit system. Capital Metro representatives just admitted last week that, if this line is built, they will be forced to take on $118M in debt to pay for new buses.

This is a serious issue that all transit riders in Austin should be concerned with. Large, risky transit investments like the one the city is contemplating have huge implications in providing mobility to current and future Austin residents. We should be investing in a project that allows us to expand transit service to other parts of the city. Many people are not convinced that this project will do that.

2) What actions and questions do you hope to see in the next months, as Project Connect progresses, from the city, the CCAG, and from Austin residents?

Last December, AURA passed a resolution that suggested that the current proposal may be better served by Bus Rapid Transit. Last month, the City of Austin Urban Transportation Commission and Capital Metro’s Customer Satisfaction Advisory Committee both passed motions for the City Council and Capital Metro Board to take a closer look at the Bus Rapid Transit mode alternative. I hope that our leaders are willing to press Project Connect to provide a more in depth explanation of why they chose to proceed with the urban rail mode alternative.

I would also like the City Council to seriously consider the implications that such a large swath of tax exempt parcels have on this route’s ability to improve the City of Austin’s tax base. For a project that is relying so much on economic development, it’s odd to me how many parcels along the route are tax exempt. I believe this is an under-reported issue that deserves more visibility.

I have strong doubts that this project will be able to pass in November. There is simply not enough passion in favor of this project, and Mayor Leffingwell has failed to make even small compromises that would have built more support. The best outcome at this point would be for Mayor Leffingwell to not put this up for a vote on the November ballot.

3) What do you think is most important for Austin residents to know about Project Connect, and about Austin’s transit future?

The most important thing I think we should all be working on in the next few months is the development of a post-urban rail transit agenda. For too long, our community has been fixated on rail as a symbol of a “world class city” rather than the actual mobility it could provide us. It has been a source of frustration, anger, and division among Austinites, and, in my opinion, has held us back from addressing real ways to improve mobility in Austin. No matter what happens in regards to the bond election in November, it is time to start building a new narrative about transit that brings Austin’s transit community together.

Below is a list of things that I will be focusing on over the next two years:

  • Get good leadership with a real understanding of transit on the Capital Metro Board and on City Council
  • Establish a frequent service bus network for Austin similar to the Houston proposal
  • Improve MetroRapid by expanding the transit priority lanes, increasing frequency and addressing the fare issue
  • Develop better transit cost-effectiveness and equity measures for Capital Metro’s service guidelines and standards
  • Implement policies that allocate public right of way based on actual transportation modeshare studies
  • Improve the way Capital Metro collects, delivers, and presents data, information, and alerts to the public
  • Integrate extensive public outreach and community involvement within the Capital Metro decision-making process
  • Build a stronger transit constituency in Austin by connecting grassroots and grasstops leadership
  • Grow a culture of transit in Austin through the use of new media and other unconventional campaigns


What do you think of the light rail proposal set forth by Project Connect? Leave your comments below! Also, be sure to see another perspective, from Downtown Austin Alliance’s Charles Betts, by clicking here.

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Written by Kate Harrington

Kate is a former reporter, most recently for the Austin Business Journal, where she covered real estate, economic development and transportation. Since 2010 she has been running Thumbtack Communications. Thumbtack provides writing, editing and marketing services. Before moving to Austin in 2002 Kate lived in her native New England, which she still visits often to escape the Texas heat.