AUSTIN (KXAN) — Earlier this week, Capital Metro announced its CEO, Randy Clarke, is leaving after four years at the public transit agency. Clarke is going to Washington, D.C. to lead the nation’s capital transit agency.

“A little bittersweet this week,” Clarke said. “I mean, the city and region have been fantastic to my family, and I love this organization, love this team, got a great board, great community support. But I happen to have this amazing, unique opportunity to go to the nation’s capital. I feel the city’s future is incredibly bright, and I just feel honored to be a small part of it when I was here.”

KXAN got to sit down with Clarke for a one-on-one interview to discuss the future of Austin’s transit agency, ridership, Project Connect cost and timeline and more.

What do you feel was your biggest accomplishment during your four years in Austin?

“We obviously grew ridership a lot before the pandemic, we push a lot of innovation, we’re moving our zero-emission bus program probably more rapidly than almost anyone in the country,” Clarke said. “And then, of course, we have Project Connect, which is just a transformational.”

We are making these investments into Project Connect but will people use them?

Discussing Project Connect costs and timeline

Just last month, KXAN reported new cost estimates for Austin to add two light rails as part of Project Connect are nearly double the original numbers, according to CapMetro. The cost estimate now sits at $10.3 billion.

Originally, the two lines and a tunnel were expected to cost $5.8 billion ($2.5 billion for the Orange Line, expected to stretch from north to south Austin; $1.3 billion for the Blue Line, expected to connect downtown to the airport; and $2 billion for a tunnel).

The new estimate adds $4.5 billion to the initial amount. That includes an additional $600 million for the Blue Line, $1.8 billion for the Orange Line and another $2.1 billion for the tunnel.

“I feel very confident in the team we have in place. When it comes to cost, there is nothing in our lives the costs have not gone up. [Project Connect] is built over 10, 15, 20 years, and so there are ups and downs,” explained Clarke.

He also said Project Connect “is very community-driven. So the community is demanding more tunneling and different types of stations. Those things cost money, but the community wants to invest that way.”

He discussed the impact federal funds could have on the project costs.

“The federal infrastructure bill creates a lot of opportunity for maybe more revenue from the federal side than local, and so we got to really see how the next year, year and a half all work out. I think that there’s going to be a big upside on the federal piece. I just asked people for patience and look at the long duration versus our world now. We concentrate day-by-day and think these things are over a decade-plus.”

Discussing ridership numbers, future

Data from CapMetro shows ridership has not bounced back to pre-pandemic numbers but has seen month-over-month growth.

“Ridership is definitely coming back, we’re about 65%,” Clarke said. “Should we have higher ridership, for the size of the city, we have the answers, yes, but we don’t have a transit system proportional to the size of the city, hence, why the Project Connect investments are so important.”

Will Austin ever be a major rail city like some others where you can take a train or subway most places?

KXAN also had the opportunity to sit down with the Capital Metro Board of Directors Chair Jeff Travillion. Later this month, CapMetro’s board will meet and discuss the next steps for the transit agency in selecting a new leader.

What are you looking for in the next Capital Metro CEO?

At this time, Travillion explained they did not have a timeline on how long the process could take.

“I don’t know exactly how long it will take. I will tell you that we will operate in such a way that, that we actually cast a wide net but make sure that we make the right decision for Austin,” Travillion said.