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As Tesla Comes Online, Transit Experts Outline Key Needs to Support Austin’s Growth

AUSTIN (KXAN) — It’s a trend more than a decade in the making, as Austin’s population continues to skyrocket, and the city attracts new employers. But as companies consider relocating or launching in Austin, transit leaders said its transportation network will play a key role in helping or hindering new development.

With this boom though comes the need to reevaluate combatting congestion levels from a sustainable approach, said Michelle Avary, vice president of product strategy and government affairs at Einride. Her company specializes in electric and autonomous electric vehicles, which she said is a critical pivot more cities need to take toward climate mitigations in addition to public transit initiatives.

During a South by Southwest panel Thursday, transportation startup leaders said the city’s investment in new mass transit operations, like the $7.1 billion Project Connect and Austin-Bergstrom International Airport expansion, are steps in the right direction.

“Austin and especially the surrounding area of Austin have more space and are more attractive for transportation than the New York or Bay Area would be,” said Marc El Khoury, CEO of Austin-based Ai Fleet. “So really, all of these factors together become really attractive for transportation companies and forwards population growth, which is also really attractive, because it’s a predicter of how the economy of the area is going to be.”

As for whether or not Elon Musk is responsible for this latest “wave” of growth in Austin, panelists said while he didn’t start this momentum, his upcoming Tesla gigafactory will certainly attract new residents and prospective employers to the area — all people who need reliable transit access.

“I think Elon Musk is coming here because of the companies that are already here,” said Joseph Kopser, president at Grayline Group. “To build an ecosystem, you need to have cash, customers and commitment.”

I-35 downtown expansion concerns

With as strong of an economy as Austin’s and a growing population supporting it, Kopser said, adding the city’s higher education systems also supplement its workers pipeline.

But smart technology initiatives are needed to ensure Austin’s transportation networks support, and don’t hinder, future development. Much of Thursday’s discussion focused on autonomous and electric vehicle technology as means of enhancing network mobility.

With I-35 existing as Austin’s leading example of congestion, it’s also a primary source of greenhouse emissions for the city, Avary said. She stressed the importance of electric vehicles as a way of cutting down on gas emissions for people still in need of vehicular transit.

In the next five years, she said she hopes to see a further commitment to renewable energy and capitalizing on electric and solar energy sources to power transit opportunities.

And while there are measures in place to elevate transit infrastructure courtesy Project Connect, AUS’ expansion and the I-35 upgrade, those are all multi-year efforts that will take time. The time is now, they said, is to employ resources and Austin-based transit startups to help the city’s pivot toward more sustainable options.

“The concern in Austin is if the infrastructure doesn’t catch up with the population,” Khoury said.

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