Lots of driverless buses with dedicated lanes: How Capital Metro sees Austin's public transit fu

Randy Clarke is president and CEO of Capital Metro, Austin's public transit agency.


The gears are in motion for an overhauled regional transportation network featuring driverless vehicles and light rail in the years and decades ahead.

The head of the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority presented new details this week about Project Connect, the transit agency's long-term infrastructure plan.

Randy Clarke, the organization's president and CEO, called Project Connect a "multi-generational investment" that would build upon Cap Remap, the organization's rejiggering of bus routes that went into effect in June.

Clarke and other officials are stressing the importance of dedicated lanes to serve "bus rapid transit," similar to today's bus service with dedicated right-of-way lanes, and "autonomous rapid transit," the same thing using driverless vehicles. They envision a network of connected electric vehicles operating in lanes that no one else can use.

Clarke even suggested autonomous rapid transit could amount to a "light rail system on rubber tires" if the region provides the infrastructure.

"It's not some sci-fi vision," he said. "It's much closer than many people realize."

"We think that's where the industry is going," he added. "But we want to study it in comparison to bus rapid transit and [light rail] to see what solution is right."

Clarke thinks Austinites shouldn't worry so much about how they are whisked around, whether it's light rail or another method. Instead, he said Project Connect needs to first identify which high-capacity corridors it will serve, and deal with later challenges such as transportation mode, construction and funding.

"The power of high-capacity transit doesn't come in a type of vehicle," he said. "We should have one goal and one goal only: How do we move the most people in the most efficient manner possible?"

Buses, autonomous and rail

Project Connect's vision plan released Oct. 1 shows two automated rapid transit lines serving the city.

One would run from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport to the University of Texas at Austin, with possible extensions to the Hancock area and the Austin Community College Highland campus.

Clarke told reporters Monday during the Austin Chamber of Commerce’s annual Regional Mobility Summit that the Riverside corridor was "very rapidly developing," citing Oracle Corp.'s growth in the area.

Another autonomous rapid transit line would run along Congress Avenue from Stassney Lane, north along Lamar Boulevard to the North Lamar Transit Center, according to the Austin American-Statesman. That line could also extend to Tech Ridge in the north and to Slaughter Lane in the south.

The vision plan would also include four bus rapid transit corridors that would stretch to the city's edges.

And it appears the Green Line still remains part of Capital Metro's plans for its future. The proposed rail route would stretch from downtown to northeast Austin, including Colony Park, then onward to Manor and potentially Elgin.

While the Green Line would serve the city's growing east side and neighbor cities, some residents and officials are skeptical of the hefty price tag, which is $264 million from Austin to Manor and another $98 million to Elgin.

'More choices'

Clarke sees the cost of transportation, particularly car ownership and commuting, as a "huge part" of Austin's affordability woes. He also said more transportation modes are needed in a region where population increases are rapidly outpacing road construction.

"It doesn't mean we can't have any more cars," he said. "But we certainly need a lot more choices than we have today."

Clarke said the success of autonomous rapid transit would depend on dedicated lanes and right-of-way, freeing up the buses from the slog of car traffic. He also said more traditional bus rapid transit could "make a real difference" with its own right-of-way and prioritized traffic signals, which keeps buses from stopping at red lights as frequently as other traffic.

"We need to make sure our largest investments are not sharing the same roads as people driving alone in their cars," Clarke said.

Austin City Council Member Delia Garza sounded supportive of dedicated bus lanes.

"Transportation isn't going to be more reliable, safer or faster until transit can run in dedicated lanes," she said.

'The community's plan'

The new Project Connect plan needs the approval of the Capital Metro board, which is expected to vote by the end of the year. Taking the Project Connect system to voters for a funding proposition is on the table for 2020.

Clarke said they can't hide from the failure of past transit propositions in 2000 and 2014.

“Other successful cities have failed first. And we can learn from that," he said. "We have a blank slate. I think we have an opportunity to do stuff in Austin that other cities do not have and we've got to take advantage of that."

"It needs to be the whole community coming together,” he added.

Clarke said outreach efforts for Project Connect in the coming months will be "unprecedented in scope and reach."

“It’s going to have to be the community’s plan," he said.