This may be one of the more important moments for a transit geek like me. My hometown, Austin, has rescheduled the launch of its commuter rail “Red Line” in next couple of weeks. Viewed out of the context of a larger system, the line has limited appeal. It represents the transit agency’s plan to utilize track it already owned to start the system and build upon initial successes. But it doesn’t go to many of the City’s hot spots (or areas of high density).
Nevertheless, it’s been five and a half years since Austin voters approved this line, and I firmly believe it prove to be quite popular. That, in turn, will give city leaders needed momentum headed into a potential transportation bond referendum this November that would, in theory, fund additional rail in the future.
Having said all that, I am just as interested in sustained improvements to bus service as I am in the build-out of rail. It is undeniable that rail provides benefits to communities like ours that buses cannot–namely, the more permanent nature of rail lines stimulates economic development at levels far greater than a new bus line can. In a time when budgets like ours are barely hanging on, any boost to the city’s property tax base would be a welcome one. But the upfront costs for rail are obviously much higher, and the timelines much longer, than improvements for bus service.
Capital Metro has wisely undertaken master planning for bus service, and I hope that the “less sexy” changes associated with that effort go into effect quickly. The more frequently buses arrive, and the more efficiently they take passengers to their destination, the more people will get out of their cars and onto transit more permanently. That will, in turn, spur greater investment in a more robust multi-modal transportation system.
I certainly don’t expect Austin to become anything close to car-free anytime soon, but I do believe a set of minor and major changes to the transit system could make a significant dent on car congestion. That, of course, means Austin could avoid sanctions from the Environmental Protection Agency for poor air quality, and we would be able to function better with our existing road system, which experts say is about as built out as can be.