We aspire to solve mobility challenges. We do not actually plan to do so.
On Monday, March 4th, a joint work session of the Austin City Council and Capital Metro Board of Directors was held to discuss the status of the Austin Strategic Mobility “Plan” (ASMP), Project Connect, and the corridor program resulting from the 2016 bond election.
This meeting was essentially a long briefing session and no actions were taken. It’s hard to assess the substantive implications from these types of meetings, but there were three themes that will in all likelihood impact mobility policy in the near-term.
The ASMP 50/50 mode shift goal is an “aspiration”
This was voiced in different ways by the policymakers present, culminating with Council Member Ann Kitchen casually describing the document as aspirational. So, while it is titled as a “Plan”, it’s more a statement of principles. The implication: Council will vote for it, but they will not dedicate political capital to making substantial mode shift by 2039 a reality.
Perhaps the most powerful question asked during the session didn’t register as such for the meeting participants.
Eric Stratton, the Williamson County representative on the CapMetro Board, wanted to know if the ASMP’s “actions” and policies were sufficient to achieve a quadrupling of transit’s commute mode share from 4% to 16% by 2039.
It’s a pretty straightforward question that arises from reading the ASMP document. Unfortunately, the answers Stratton received betrayed the reality that the ASMP document doesn’t actually quantify the specific capital and operational resources needed to get to that level of transit mode share.
The CapMetro CEO’s answer indicated that the ridership numbers crunched during Project Connect weren’t yet computed to determine the contribution to that ASMP goal. He also stated that investments would need to be “big” (which is, well, obvious). The CapMetro Board President argued that the actions provided by the ASMP preserved leeway for future system growth.
Absent a clear capital project schedule and new funding sources for operations, it seems that transit expansion will remain ad hoc.
Remember the cars
Paradoxically, while the ASMP argues that the City needs to move away from car-centric policy and reduce single-occupant vehicle commuting, the region’s transit agency will not be making that their priority.
Instead, as a presentation by Dave Couch – Project Connect’s technical point-person – made clear, CapMetro will be adjusting its high-capacity transit project engineering to avoid taking away car travel lanes. This will significantly add to the costs of the Orange and Blue Line projects. For example, the low-cost version of the segments that make up the Orange Line was approximately $1.1 billion in an early estimate made by Project Connect during Phase 2 of its current vintage. The low-cost version impacted a car travel lane for a substantial part of the North Lamar and Guadalupe segment. What about the high-cost version that minimized right-of-way impacts for car travel lanes? Close to $3.5 billion in capital costs.
As the session was occuring, the Mayor’s office restated their position on car lane protection, with an aide tweeting the following statement: “The priority is to provide dedicated pathways for transit on the orange and blue lines [sic] with the goal of not eliminating any existing through travel lanes.”
Overall, the session left the impression that while the ASMP is trying to urge much-needed change on mobility priorities, Austin’s policymakers are uncomfortable investing political capital or the level of financial resources needed to actually pursue those changes.