While most Americans have spent the last two weeks either celebrating or lamenting the results of the presidential election, there was another election outcome that Austinites in particular should be relishing. Project Connect is an ambitious transit plan for our growing city and Austin voters just approved its funding, Proposition A. The plan’s most notable feature is a light rail network and it’s not the first time Capital Metro asked voters to consider investing in rail infrastructure.
In the year 2000, Austin voters were asked to consider a plan that included two trains. That proposal narrowly failed. Capital Metro also once played with the idea of a gondola that would travel from the University of Texas at Austin to Slaughter Lane, though that never made it to vote. Again in 2004, Austinites were asked to approve the Red Line. Voters were more enthusiastic this time and it passed with 62% of the vote. All of that is to say Austin has a history of flirting with dedicated transit, but never with substantial commitment. With Prop A’s approval, Austin has finally said yes to public transportation.
What is Project Connect?
Project Connect is a $7.9 billion proposal that includes a litany of transportation additions and improvements. The marquee feature is three new light rail lines. The Orange, Blue, and Green trains will take riders to and from key destinations and along key transit corridors. The Orange Line will begin at South Congress, travel through downtown, past the University of Texas at Austin, and up North Lamar. The Blue Line will begin at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and then follow the same path as the Orange Line once it reaches downtown. Finally, the Green Line will be a commuter rail starting downtown and taking riders northeast, with a proposed extension all the way to Elgin. The existing Red Line will receive additional stations, including a stop at the Domain and a stop at the under-construction Austin FC stadium. What’s more, the proposal includes a transit tunnel through downtown, making it so that trains can move unimpeded by vehicular traffic. That’s right, Austin, Texas will have its very own subway. Watch out, yankees.
Project Connect is not only about trains. The plan also promises expanded bus services. There will be four new local routes, three new express routes, nine new Park & Ride stations, and improved service for existing routes. Our bike share network, MetroBike, will also see improvements in the form of an all-electric fleet.
What’s so great about trains, anyway?
Why, then, should Austinites be excited about Project Connect? What do Austinites have to gain by committing such a substantial sum of tax dollars to transit? Why should any of us sacrifice the convenience of driving for a clunky train system? There is a reason that European cities with robust systems do better on quality of life metrics. There are reasons that so many Americans flock to transit-friendly cities like New York City, San Francisco, and Seattle. There is a reason that so many American cities are beginning to reinvest in their transportation infrastructure. Mass transit is the way forward for America. Project Connect is the way forward for Austin.
Like most American cities, Austin has a bit of a traffic problem. Our city’s average commute is a staggering 24.1 minutes each way. Not to mention, Austin is growing. In fact, its population is expected to double by 2040. Driving will only become less viable as demand for both road space and parking increases. Project Connect seeks to ease that traffic. With the light rail, commuters can expect less congested commutes, especially if their trips occur on roads adjacent to the proposed rail lines.
Beyond the immediate benefit of traffic relief, Project Connect represents a massive step forward in Austin’s effort to combat climate change. On average, an automobile will release 371 grams of CO2 per passenger mile, compared to 179 grams on inter-city rail. The very act of taking the train as opposed to driving represents a drastic reduction in emissions. Transit also encourages density, making it so that residents may need nothing more than their own two feet to reach common destinations that they may otherwise be forced to drive to.
Rails will also have positive health impacts. Riders who live close enough may choose to walk, bike, or even skate to and from stations or bus stops, replacing the sedentary act of driving with valuable physical activity. The CDC recommends around 22 minutes of moderate intensity aerobics a day. An 11-minute walk to and from your train stop satisfies this recommendation on its own. More importantly, transit is radically less fatal. In 2018, there were 0.47 deaths per 100 million passenger miles via personal automobiles. For busses and trains, there were only 0.03 deaths per 100 million passenger miles, a decrease of over 1600%. Cities with dependable transit are safer in a very tangible way.
Austin is a rising star among US cities. In many ways, it is already playing in the big leagues: a booming tech sector, a prestigious university, renowned dining, and major festivals. In these ways and more, we keep up with competitors like Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco. Unfortunately, there is one way where almost every notable US city has us beat: transit. Now that Austin has made the commitment to public transportation, we solidify ourselves as a truly heavy-hitting city.