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Austin, Texas, Transit Vision Includes Self-Driving Buses

Cap Metro is creating a transit plan that could one day take the form of light rail transit, rapid bus transit or even self-driving buses, but there might be some opposition.

(TNS) — On a recent Tuesday night at Austin, Texas' City Hall, Michael McHone was one of dozens in attendance to listen to Capital Metro CEO Randy Clarke and other transit officials talk about the agency's ambitious plans for augmenting the area's mass transit system.

Many had spoken favorably about Cap Metro's in-progress Project Connect map, which outlines routes that could one day take the form of light rail transit, rapid bus transit or even self-driving buses. Still, the city's failed 2014 transportation bond, which called for a light rail line from Austin Community College's Highland campus through downtown and along Riverside Drive, was not far from mind.

"We have to get a community that is first committed to dedicated pathways," said McHone, vice president of a West Campus neighborhood association. "We have to get that first. ... But if they come out (in opposition) like they did in 2014, it is going to be an awful, uphill fight."

On Monday, Cap Metro's board will vote whether to accept Project Connect's "vision plan" map. It paints a picture of Cap Metro's dream scenario: a multitude of transit lines crisscrossing the Austin area, diffusing passengers from downtown to the fast-growing suburbs. Though the map does not set proposed routes in stone, Cap Metro officials consider it a milestone as the agency and the city of Austin head toward putting another transportation bond before voters in 2020 in what likely would be another attempt to build a second rail line.

The vote Monday should clear Cap Metro to start engineering and environmental studies along the proposed routes. At the recent public meeting about the project, Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Clarke were quick to say the proposed lines have not yet been wedded to modes of transportation. They could be populated by light rail, rapid transit buses piloted by Cap Metro drivers or self-driving autonomous vehicles.

The current plans call for adding a rail route — the Green Line — that would run from downtown Austin to Manor. It would join the existing Red Line, a light rail track from Leander to downtown Austin.

The map also shows an Orange Line that moves along North Lamar Boulevard before hitching along Guadalupe Street by the University of Texas, then proceeding south on Congress Avenue to Slaughter Lane. And there's a Blue Line that looks like the planned route tied to the failed rail bond in 2014, which travels south from Austin Community College's Highland campus along Interstate 35 before heading east on Riverside Drive and eventually to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

Since Cap Metro unveiled the map in October, the agency has decided at the behest of community input to add new lines to the aspirational map. New additions include an east-west route along Parmer Lane, a route along Manchaca Road and one from RM 620 at RM 2222 to downtown.

The options will become clearer as studies continue throughout 2019, said Dave Couch, Cap Metro's Project Connect program manager. The studies also will determine where dedicated pathways can be set alongside existing traffic lanes and where Cap Metro might need to tunnel or venture skyward with elevated lines.

"I'd be amazed if anything got taken off (the map)," Couch said, looking ahead to Monday's vote. "The higher probability is that something would be added."

The most likely new spot for another rail line involves the proposed Green Line — from downtown Austin to Manor. Cap Metro already owns the needed tracks and much of the right of way required for a second commuter rail.

But the planned Green Line already is facing opposition.

"Because one of the most important metrics in transit planning is cost per rider, the proposed Green Line's combination of low ridership and high operating costs is simply unsustainable," said a news release from the urbanist group AURA.

The group opposed the 2014 bond after reaching a similar conclusion about the that bond's proposed rail line.

"Perhaps (the Green Line) can be included in a future, built out system, where walkable urban communities have been developed along the proposed route," AURA said in its release, "but that would require further study."

Cap Metro officials see real value in conducting studies regarding the proposed routes. Any 2020 bond would rely heavily on the acquisition of federal grants to complete the work, and environmental studies must be conducted for the Austin area to become eligible for those grants.

Likewise, to achieve adequate funding for Project Connect, Cap Metro likely would have to get Austin's outlying suburbs to contribute money. One study showed a potential $10.5 billion price tag to build out the Project Connect system without considering any of the new proposed routes that could be approved for study Monday.

Cap Metro's board chair, Wade Cooper, said the difference between the current project and the one that preceded the failed 2014 bond is that Project Connect is considered a regional plan instead of just one rail route that had many people scratching their heads over its feasibility.

"I hope we don't drop the football," Cooper said. "For right now, we are starting a regional conversation. This is how we see it, but we have to partner with everyone else out there."

©2018 Austin American-Statesman, Texas. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.