With the tremendous growth happening in Central Texas, the demand for an integrated transit system continues to increase. And yet, like most projects of this scale, there are many challenges to creating a system that works best for riders across the region. As the largest public transportation provider in the region, Capital Metro is taking the lead to address these challenges, but it will take creativity and strong partnerships to meet the needs of our rapidly growing community.
Understanding Our Service Area
“Essentially the Central Texas area we’d like to serve is 4,000 square miles, but the area we can officially serve is just 520 square miles,” says Todd Hemingson, Vice President of Strategic Planning and Development for Capital Metro. “And it’s not necessarily the 520 square miles Central Texas needs it to be.” It’s important to understand that Capital Metro operates within a limited service area including Austin, Jonestown, Lago Vista, Leander, Manor, Point Venture, San Leanna, Volente, and portions of Travis County and Williamson County, including the Anderson Mill area. These member jurisdictions voted to join Capital Metro and to support it with a portion of the sales tax collected in those areas.
Other jurisdictions not in the service area voted against being a part of Capital Metro or have opted out since the original vote. That being said, many of these jurisdictions like Georgetown, Pflugerville and Kyle, are currently working with us to create a system that will integrate with Capital Metro’s service. “While there’s no restriction on Capital Metro operating outside of its service area, we cannot do so without a funding partner from that area,” says Hemingson. “As elected officials in those areas start to hear that their constituents want more transportation options, those communities are reaching out to us to discuss partnerships.
Sources for funding a more integrated system
If the jurisdictions outside the service area can’t spend their one percent sales tax on Capital Metro services, there are other ways to fund expanded transit. Currently, the federal government gives grant funding for transit to Central Texas based on it being an “urbanized area.” Where does that money go? The federal government directs those funds to the largest transit authority in the region, in our case, Capital Metro. “As a result, Capital Metro receives federal money for the full urbanized area, yet many portions of that area aren’t part of Capital Metro,” says Hemingson. “So we are receiving funding for parts of Central Texas that we cannot serve.” To close this gap, Capital Metro is working with these jurisdictions to find new ways to leverage the federal money while also staying within the bounds of what they’re allowed to do by law. Its recently-adopted Service Expansion Policy outlines five types of partnerships for outlying areas to consider. And some of the jurisdictions are already taking advantage of these options.
“The policy is structured to help them access the federal funds that come to the urbanized area to support transit, and to begin to plan for an integrated transit system for Central Texas,” says Hemingson. In Del Valle, for example, an unincorporated area in southeast Travis County, it has become increasingly important to offer residents reliable and connected public transportation, because so many in the area have few transportation options. However, Del Valle falls outside of the Capital Metro service area. By working with its partners, Capital Metro identified federal grant funding and formed a partnership with the Capital Area Rural Transportation System or CARTS. CARTS serves a 7,200-square-mile, nine-county area surrounding Austin and links in to Capital Metro. Leveraging the federal money available, Del Valle residents now have more options for commuting in and out of Austin.
“What’s best about working with other transportation systems in the region,” says Hemingson, “is that we can work together to create a seamless system. That way, riders don’t have to step on and off different transportation systems to get to their destination. In the end, it’s better for the system, but mostly it’s better for the rider.”
In another example, Capital Metro was able to identify a way to serve the Austin Community College Cypress Creek campus in Cedar Park. “We knew that was an important destination to reach,” says Hemingson, “but again, for Capital Metro to operate outside of its service area, we must have a funding partner.” When the City of Cedar Park was unable to fund the service extension, ACC worked with Capital Metro to pay for the service itself. “For Capital Metro, it’s always about serving the region as best we can within the limits set for us by law,” says Hemingson. “But we can’t ignore the region’s growth. So we’re excited to be working with cities outside our service area to find creative solutions and get more people where they need to be.”
Capital Metro is forging new partnerships with more communities outside its service area, like Georgetown, which is working on a Transit Development Plan. The cities of Hutto and Pflugerville are also planning to start transit plans early next year. Capital Metro has encouraged these communities to come up with a three-year plan for how they would leverage their share of federal funding for public transportation in a way that would work best for the entire region. In addition, Capital Metro is underwriting the cost of the planning phase by allowing these jurisdictions to use federal money for that purpose.”We want to encourage partners to think through their requirements,” says Hemingson, “and consider the best way to serve their communities.” Look for more about those projects in upcoming articles and on www.projectconnect.com.