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Neighborhoods Council will

Thursday, September 21, 2000 by

The Austin Neighborhoods Council has voted not to vote–at least, not yet–when it comes to the light rail issue. Representatives from 60 member neighborhoods will be invited to ANC's general meeting on Oct. 25 to cast a “yes,” “no” or “no opinion” on the November referendum.

If a vote had been taken last night, ANC's neighborhood representatives might have gone the way of the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association. As Bouldin Creek President Garry Hyatt told the ANC, his neighborhood decided to pass on taking a position on light rail.

There are those in Bouldin Creek who favor light rail, those who oppose it and the merchants on South Congress who are likely to be impacted by a light rail line through South Austin, Hyatt said. Like Bouldin Creek, neighborhoods around the table at the ANC meeting ran the gamut from strong support to clear doubt about light rail benefits–although all agreed the group was committed to new mass transit options for Austin.

In the case of the always vocal Bouldin Creek, neighbors have been encouraged to present their best case on rail to each other, Hyatt said. Other neighborhoods, such as Zilker and Bryker Woods, have scheduled neighborhood association votes on light rail for October.

Buena Vista Neighborhood Association member Gavino Fernandez, a light rail opponent in East Austin who is also the coordinator of El Concilio, urged the ANC board to take no position on the light rail issue. The opinion on light rail is too diverse among ANC neighborhoods, Fernandez told the group. Better to leave such a decision to individual neighborhoods or a political arm of the ANC, such as the now defunct Save Austin's Neighborhoods and Environment.

Fernandez worries about displacement of homes in his East Austin neighborhood. Others, like Joyce Basciano of the Bryker Woods Neighborhood Association, simply have a lot of questions: How will the line accommodate fire and emergency traffic? How will bike, pedestrian, rail and car traffic peacefully co-exist in one corridor? How will the elevated portions of light rail–such as the proposed segment along Lamar from the Triangle down to 30th Street– blend back into the main lane of traffic?

Local neighborhoods “simply have not been given a clear enough picture,” said Basciano, who added that changing plans, incomplete information and poor bus service have all clouded the issue. "I think we all theoretically want light rail. We just can't buy into this plan.”

Other neighborhood representatives wanted to know where trains would be stationed overnight, how rail freight and light rail would coordinate the use of the same rail lines, and how much right-of-way would be necessary on narrow corridors such as Guadalupe at the University of Texas. They also asked how bus service and rail service would mesh, especially for those who live beyond the north end of the proposed rail line.

But a last-minute resolution from a representative of the Zilker Neighborhood Association saved the discussion. ANC members unanimously agreed to four points:

• The Austin Neighborhoods Council is committed to the completion of an impartial report on "lessons learned" from an ANC visit to Dallas light rail. Travis Heights neighborhood leader Rene Barrera is completing the report, which should shed light on more issues, but not suggest a pro or con position.

• ANC will also wait for Capital Metro's announcement of the light rail line alignment next Monday. The group will continue to gather information from Capital Metro to answer questions and concerns from member neighborhoods.

• All Austin Neighborhoods Council members will be notified of the group's meeting on Oct. 25, with the clear understanding the group can choose from three possible positions on light rail: They can vote in favor of light rail, vote against light rail or, like Bouldin Creek, take no position.

• The ANC board will contact member neighborhood associations to ask that a representative attend the Oct. 25 meeting and encourage neighborhood leaders who wish to do so to schedule an association vote on the issue before the ANC October meeting.

Capital Metro has been making the rounds, presenting the latest proposals for Austin’s light rail system. Last night the Downtown Commission heard the newest proposals, specifically focusing on route corridors and how the estimated $919-million project will impact downtown.

“We’re mainly concerned with getting people into and out of downtown expeditiously,” said Commission Chair Robert Knight. “What’s the vision for downtown?” he asked Bob Smith, Director of Strategic Planning and Development for Capital Metro.

“We don’t want to force people onto light rail downtown,” Smith said. “Our goal is not to force anyone to use light rail. We’ll continue to use bus service downtown.”

The proposed routes do, in fact, go through the heart of downtown, but Smith said Capital Metro’s vision is to increase downtown bus systems to link with the light rail lines. “We would totally redesign the Dillo system,” he said, “I would see more Dillo service rather than less.”

Downtown presents specific logistical problems for light rail. “A three-car train would barely fit within a downtown block–that’s the most we could do,” Smith said. He noted that the exact downtown routes wouldn’t be decided until next year.

Many details have yet to be worked out, but the current proposal calls for the initial phase, about 20 miles, with 26 to 30 stations, to be up and running in 2007. The completed system, 52 miles, is slated for 2025. The referendum election on Nov. 7 will concern the entire 52-mile proposal.

Early discussion during the meeting centered on numerous options for routing the rail through downtown:

• Which specific streets might be used • Building new rails or use of existing rails on or along streets • Having separate lines running north and south, to flow with traffic on one-way streets • Balancing cost increases with measures to prevent seriously impeding traffic flow • Merchant mitigation for loss of business • Extra stops or stations and whether they warrant extra transit time • Which bridges to use crossing Town Lake

All of these factors played into the discussion. Concerning bridge choices, for instance, the Congress Avenue Bridge does not appear to be a viable option. “It does not have sufficient strength in its design to handle the loading of a light rail vehicle,” Smith said. Construction could also negatively impact the resident bat colony under the bridge, he said. “The Drake Bridge is significantly easier to upgrade than the Congress Avenue Bridge.” The State Capitol complex may or may not be on the light rail route. Smith said rail planners are considering running the line along 16th Street, since it is closest to the largest number of state employees in the area. But such a route would add four-and-a-half minutes to the overall travel time, he said.

Parts of the proposal that appear to be firm include having dedicated lanes on streets exclusively for light rail vehicles. Other vehicle traffic would be excluded, except for emergency vehicles. Automobiles sharing lanes with the rail lines has been shown to impede traffic considerably and slow down everyone, Smith said. It’s likely the actual rail vehicles will be able to accommodate bicycles, with 70 percent of the floor space being low to the ground, eliminating the need to step up into the car.

Smith said Capital Metro has changed its perspective on transit centers. In the past, he said, the agency has taken a “minimalist” approach–thinking fewer are better. But it’s time to rethink the whole system, he said. The transit company will probably add six or seven new transit centers, including one downtown, in the next five years.

Commission member Bruce Willenzik asked Smith if the system could run past midnight to better serve the entertainment district. “We need to look into that more,” Smith said. That kind of change might be contingent on agreements worked out with freight train companies that use some of the same tracks.

©2000 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Survivors…The buzzword at last night's Austin Neighborhoods Council meeting was "marginal business," as South Congress merchant Gail Armstrong and others took jabs at recent press that suggested that light rail would bring a type of Darwinian "survival of the fittest" to South Congress business. Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association President Garry Hyatt said he could only hope South Congress merchants "would get a little more help from the city than far South Congress got from TxDOT."

Strange bedfellows… El Concilio has joined forces with light rail opponents Gerald Daugherty and Max Nofziger. Gavino Fernandez told In Fact Daily his group will be putting up anti-rail posters “all over town.”…On the other side of the fence… Joe Lessard, a former assistant city manager with the City of Austin, is working in the private sector now. He said he helped negotiate the portion of the Steiner Ranch development proposal dealing with the federal Endangered Species Act…Interminable delays…The Bennett tract, you know the one—east of I-35 between 11th and 12th Streets—was postponed for the tenth time Tuesday night, this time indefinitely. Commission Vice Chair Betty Baker told the staff she wants to make sure the proposed developer pays for re-notification whenever the case comes back. Different sets of neighbors have been negotiating for months over how much commercial development and how much housing should be allowed on the tract… SOS Alliance Executive Director Bill Bunch will be presenting SOSA’s new multi-media effort on why Barton Springs is so important to the Audubon Society tonight. The meeting will be at Camp Mabry, Building 82, at 7:30 p.m. For directions, call SOSA at 477-2320…The LCRA wants you…to sign up for service on its advisory panels for Lakes Austin, Travis, Buchanan, Inks, LBJ and Marble Falls. The panel will address issues affecting the lakes, including water use, water quality, lake management and lake access. Anyone interested in serving on a panel can contact Sara Morgenroth at 1-800-776-5272 or access the LCRA web page at… Watch out downtown!…The Dell Direct Convention will close Fourth Street from Nueces to Rio Grande from 8 a.m. to midnight today.

© 2000 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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