Cap Metro CEO maps out the future of Austin traffic

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by TYLER SIESWERDA / KVUE News, photojournalist DATHAN NULL and editor ROB DIAZ

kvue.com

Posted on December 19, 2013 at 11:26 PM

Updated Friday, Dec 20 at 5:11 AM

AUSTIN -- Awful. Horrendous. Distressing. Whatever the adjective, metro Austin roads have become some of the most congested in the country.   

Imagine 70 cars being added every day, on average. That's what's happening in Austin right now, and it's predicted to get much worse. That's why mass transit finally has mass appeal in Central Texas.

Just three years ago, a state review of Capital Metro found a long list of serious problems with the Central Texas transit authority.

Among those problems were unsustainable operating costs, labor disagreements and mismanaging hundreds of millions of dollars.

The 2010 Sunset Commission said change was mandatory. KVUE sat down with Cap Metro CEO Linda Watson, who is leading the charge, helping Austin catch up after years of community mistrust in the transit system.

"It takes a long time to build any kind of transportation infrastructure and make a major investment.  We've had some starts and stops here in Austin and in Central Texas," said Watson.

The CEO was more than happy to show off Cap Metro's East Austin headquarters that she said is a very different place from the debt-ridden, morale-plagued, unpopular organization she took over in August 2010. A community approval rating of 90 percent now is one example.

"When I first got here, we had just gotten a scathing audit report, actually, from the Sunset Commission that was very critical of us and had about 20 recommendations. I'm proud to say today that we have addressed every single one," Watson said.

That included showing where every penny of its $274 million budget is spent.

"We are the most transparent transit system in the state, maybe the country. We've addressed our financial issues. We've built up our reserves and now have a long range financial plan, including capital improvement program," Watson said.

That is the next frontier for Watson: building the Cap Metro of the future. Technology will play a big role in every aspect, including the new MetroRapid service, which begins its first route in January, running every 10 minutes during peak hours from North Lamar to South Congress.

"We're going to have smart buses operating on smart streets stopping at smart stations," Watson said.

Some of that same technology is already available on the MetroRail Red Line, which Watson said is a success. Rail riders have tripled in the past three years, and more upgrades are on the way.

"We just recently received a federal grant for just over $11 million to expand the capacity on MetroRail, so we can carry more people during the peak," Watson said.

But Watson said her job at Cap Metro won't be done until something called Project Connect is a reality.

"We created Project Connect or this regional vision for transit, so we can show the community how all these different pieces of transit fit together to form one seamless, integrated transit system," Watson said.

That means buses, express lanes, MetroRail, Urban Rail in the Austin core and the Lone Star regional rail running from Georgetown to San Antonio would all be linked together. Go here for the Project Connect Vision Map.

"I think we are at the very beginning of a sea of change for the community embracing transit," Watson said.

And if Linda Watson attacks the future like she tackled Cap Metro's past, Central Texas may one day break free from the gridlock.

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