“Crawl, walk, run.” That’s Capital Metro CEO Randy Clarke pet mantra when it comes to Project Connect, his agency’s regional high-capacity transit planning process. Start with the fundamentals, his point is, and gradually work your way up to the advanced stuff.
So, inspired by this Nova Scotian newcomer to Austin, I personally crawled out of bed late Monday morning and walked down to the AT&T Conference Center on the University of Texas campus to dig the unveiling of the much anticipated Project Connect Vision Plan. The draft document set for the Capital Metro board of directors’ approval later this year zeros in on the specific corridors deemed most suitable for transit upgrades. And to the likely chagrin of the city’s mostly inactive transit activists, the proposed plan shuns light rail in favor of autonomous rapid transit operating in dedicated pathways (a novel term of art that, according to informed scuttlebutt, polled better than dedicated lanes).
It’s not entirely easy to square the plan’s stated preference for ART along the Guadalupe/Lamar and Riverside corridors with assertions from Clarke and others that Project Connect remains mode agnostic. Nonetheless, Clarke insisted to members of the press that the new vision plan’s focus is primarily on preferred corridors.
“Now, let’s take the next step of the process and work with the community to do a lot of engineering to feel out which type of… wheel works best on that corridor,” said Clarke.
The courtesy of keeping that debate open appears to be largely a formality and will likely have little consequence since the city’s grassroots rail supporters have failed to demonstrate the interest, capacity, or competency to engage in effective advocacy for their cause. Like various Imperial Japanese soldiers holding out on remote islands for decades after World War II ended, a handful of hardcore revanchist rail fetishists will resist any efforts to move forward with Project Connect. They are, of course, worms whose smashed guts will only grease the skids of progress.
Naturally, I kid. In fact, I welcome the rail proponents’ contributions to the coming conversation and, no doubt, so too does Capital Metro. But the hill is steep and any expectations that haven’t by this point been tempered should be considered delusional and counterproductive. Austin has for decades talked and talked and talked and talked and talked and talked and talked and talked and talked and talked and talked about light rail even as the city and region built out billions of dollars of new roads to service our rapacious sprawl. In other words, the main vehicle of contemporary local activism — moar tweets — isn’t gonna get the job done.
But while progress in a town full of fake progressives might seem elusive, there were signs of hope on Monday. Admittedly, you had to look hard to find them hidden between the usual horrors of these rubber chicken luncheons. You could have counted on one finger the number of times climate change was referenced. And one panel of elected officials moderated by Judge Sarah Eckhardt focused largely on extolling the expansion of I-35 while another featured a bunch of gobbledygook about smart cities and drones and sensors or some shit. Meanwhile, two years after the Chamber released its 2016 Mobility Report that focused on the benefits of dense, walkable cities, no one mentioned land use reform.
In his scrum with reporters, however, Clarke reiterated that density and productive transit go hand in hand.
“Our most important corridors, where there is major development happening today, where there are major mobility issues today, those are the corridors we need to come together and figure out what they’re going to look like when two million more people live here in 2040,” he said. “We’ve got to start thinking with a sense of urgency about how our kids and grandkids are going to use this city.”
Later, Council Member and Capital Metro Vice Chair Delia Garza drew applause from the crowd by firmly declaring her commitment to deliver dedicated pathways to whichever routes Project Connect delivers.
While she didn’t exactly embrace a radical program of expropriating car lanes for public transit, Garza should at least be commended for going further than any of her colleagues on the dais so far. Some of those colleagues, particularly those who joined her in the pro-CodeNEXT caucus will surely jump on the dedicated ROW wagon soon.
And if it so turns out that we end up in several years with just true bus rapid transit — as opposed to the fake BRT the agency attempted to pass off when it launched MetroRapid in 2014 — operating in elevated or underground or dedicated center-running lanes on Guadalupe/Lavaca, then, man, whatever. This is the same city that has 60’ height limits outside of downtown and minimum lot sizes of something on the order of 50,000 square feet. Just take what you can get.