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CapMetro CEO discusses how Biden administration could impact the future of Austin transit

CEO Randy Clarke joined us on President Joe Biden's second day in office to discuss executive orders, Project Connect and more.

AUSTIN, Texas — Austin's Project Connect is already making headway after gaining approval in the 2020 election.

Thursday was the Austin Transit Partnership's first inaugural board meeting, paving the way to start the program. Capital Metro has already initiated some early hiring, the board approved its first budget, and leaders are advancing multiple projects to fulfill the commitment to the community to finish on schedule.

But Thursday was also President Joe Biden's second day in office, and he's already signed a series of executive orders that could impact the future of Austin transportation. 

Capital Metro CEO Randy Clark joined KVUE to discuss.

President Joe Biden signed a presidential declaration for face masks on federal land. And today he did one for public transit. CapMetro already has a face mask requirement. How does this help reinforce these rules? 

Well, I think it's always good that we have presidential leadership explaining the joint compassion and joint ownership that we all have to deal with. This pandemic's connector was one of the early leaders from a transit point of view. We mandated masks early April, and now it's good to see that the federal government is furthering support efforts like CapMetro and other strategies around the country to fulfill our need that we have to look after each other. And for me especially, I really care about the safety also of our staff members who are out there on the frontline, really essential workers doing great work for our community day in and day out.

With issuing a federal mask mandate, is there anything that CapMetro can get that can help reinforce in any other particular way?

So I think the key is messaging, right? Its leadership on the top saying masks are crucial. We have to believe in science and that we're all here to help each other get through what hopefully will be towards the end of the pandemic. So it's not going to change CapMetro's procedures and policy. That's been straightforward. We, if anything, the president's executive order further emphasizes what we did early on in the pandemic, that safety is always going to be the most critical thing we do at CapMetro.

And I'm going back to my first question on Project Connect. With the new administration comes the new cabinet and Pete Buttigieg is now the secretary for transportation. How does that impact CapMetro and Central Texas transportation?

We're very excited to work with the new administration. I think most people know President Biden, a lot of people, previous nickname of Amtrak Joe, very supportive of intercity rail and public transit secretary, but Buttigieg, a mayor from a city that really understands that value of transit. And some of his confirmation hearings today, he mentioned those important topics. It's clear that there's an infrastructure program that this administration wants to move forward. Infrastructure is a bipartisan topic, very well supported across the entire country. We have needs all over this country to kind of rebuild and rebuild back. Better, Project Connect fits perfectly into their program. It's about equity. It's about sustainability and improving access to jobs and opportunity. So we very much look forward to advancing our program and partnering with the Biden administration.

Project Connect is seeking about 45% of funding from the federal government for this project, correct?

That's correct. That we'll be looking for a significant share of the program costs from the federal government through the grant programs.

Do you expect that this new administration, maybe more money is coming in to help fund this project? More than 45%?

So we are very cautiously optimistic with the Biden administration. I think most people know President Biden, said a previous nickname of Amtrak Joe, big, big fan of inner-city rail and also urban transit. Secretary Buttigieg, during his confirmation hearing today, reiterated his belief in multimodalism and building back better, as the administration is calling it, the criticality of transportation to address inequities, sustainable, to deal with climate sustainability, with climate change, and to create more jobs, and it fits literally perfectly into their agenda. We are building a better transportation system for the future of Austin, and it's to really deal with some of our long-term inequities in our community, provide better access to high-quality transportation. Everything is green-energy based. So it's really doing our part to address climate change, and we're going to create tens of thousands of jobs in the process. So we're cautiously optimistic that the infrastructure program that they want to advance will position Austin very well to get a large share of federal funds.

How does this impact the community? They already voted on the bond in November, but can this help alleviate some of the financial sides of the community? 

So we voted locally to have a local match and then we can now take that and ask for federal funds. That's how the process works. We have to show our commitment locally to go after federal funds. We obviously are basing a big part of our program on federal grant opportunities that currently exist. If more funding becomes even available on the federal side, that could lead to the program being redone potentially faster. It could allow also the Metropolitan City Council to consider adding additional projects in the long-range plan that are not funded so far into the plan. So we could do even more projects to really help move our community forward.

From now to four years, where do you see this administration helping CapMetro move forward?  

I think we're really encouraged that the public transportation and leadership at the federal administration and other departments will really be focused on how to create the safest kind of infrastructure development in the city. So things to increase walking and bicycle usage and transit, help reduce greenhouse gases, really getting people better options to get out of the car and driving by themselves. So there's a variety of things that will happen over the next four years. There'll be things about regulatory potential changes that could be grant programs, lots of things that each administration goes through. And we very much look forward to working with the administration and given our ideas of how to make sure these programs are the best for tonight.

What message do you have to the community to help encourage them to use CapMetro and their services and making sure to instill the confidence that they will be safe not only on the road, but from COVID-19? 

Right now, we are we're still at Stage Five. And while it looks like the last couple of days, the numbers have left a little bit, and that is where we're crossing our fingers. I think that we might be at the apex and coming down from that, we're really telling people to avoid transit and only keep to essential trips and the other vaccines starting to roll out. That's going to get better every day. You see the most vulnerable members of our community getting that. So the light is at the end of the tunnel. Let's all just bear down, wear a mask, keep our distance. All the things we actually know, what we're supposed to do, show some joint humanity. Really, let's bear down for the next 60, 90 days. And we're not that far away from getting back to some activity that is kind of more normal. And when we do, we encourage everyone to get back on transit. We are very safe and we're looking forward to moving everyone again around the city. But for the meantime, let's try to keep transit the safe as you can for the essential workers out there that truly need transit and avoid some crowding and just everyone really wear a mask and be safe.

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