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TTC developer proposes new rail project

Thursday, March 30, 2006 by

Border to DFW line could clear way for Austin mass transportation projects

The company developing the first phase of the Trans Texas Corridor on Wednesday offered to also construct a new rail line as part of the project, spanning more than 600 miles from the Texas-Mexico border to the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex. Officials with the Texas Transportation Commission said that new rail line could help cities like Austin in their efforts to divert freight rail traffic away from urban areas, reclaiming right-of-way for commuter rail or other mass transit projects.

Final approval from the TTC for the north-south rail corridor is still years away. Cintra-Zachry, the coalition of firms responsible for the Trans Texas Corridor, would not necessarily win the final bid for the project. The company did indicate a willingness to spend about $5 billion dollars to construct the line with the intent of recouping its investment from fees charged to shipping companies to use the line.

While major rail companies such as BNSF or Union Pacific would not be forced to use the new line, TTC officials predicted that reduced delays would make it very attractive to freight traffic. "If you're UP, and it takes you four hours to get a freight train from south San Antonio to Georgetown…and you have the opportunity to take that same freight that same distance in 78 minutes, you probably associate some value with that time saved," said TTC Commissioner Ric Williamson.

He predicted that Union Pacific could then stop freight operations on the MoPac line, which runs through Austin. "If you're UP and you own this right-of-way, you probably realize it's valuable to only two types of people: yourself, and some unit of government that would like to use it for a commuter rail and a road."

UP, he said, could negotiate with Cintra-Zachry to use the new Trans Texas Corridor rail line while giving up the use of MoPac, possibly even turning over the right-of-way to Cintra-Zachry as part of its deal to use the new track. "They might turn to the State of Texas, Capital Metro, or San Antonio…and say 'we've got this line you can use as commuter rail, and you can put some car-lanes on each side of it. Here's what we want for it.' So that's kind of a circuitous way of saying that's how they would convert their asset to value and pay for moving outside of town."

Getting trains out of urban areas, along with increasing the total amount of freight carried by rail instead of truck, are two of the main selling points of the project. Williamson said the new rail line could carry enough freight to remove up to 10,000 18-wheelers per day from I-35.

Ross Milloy, Executive Director of Greater Austin-San Antonio Corridor Council, is working on the Austin-San Antonio rail line. He says it’s too early to know whether the Cintra Zachry deal will work, but he’s encouraged by the transportation agency’s recognition of the need.

“I think it’s a positive sign,” Milloy said. “First, it’s a positive sign that Cintra Zachry recognizes that there is a viable market, at least viable enough to possibly lure Union Pacific off its line or create a competitive situation for them. And it’s a positive sign that TxDOT recognizes there’s a need for more efficient transportation.”

It’s time to get freight off existing urban lines and onto a more efficient system, Milloy said. A failure to do that, long term, could have a serious impact on both the effort to move commuter rail into Texas and move freight through the state.

City hopes TxDOT will help with Great Streets

Looking for a new source of funds, the city’s Design Commission has endorsed a plan by city staff to seek grant funds to apply Great Streets elements to planned streetscapes on Brazos and Colorado streets in the downtown area.

The Brazos and Colorado Great Streets project, which would transform both streets between 3rd and 11th streets, won City Council approval in 2001 along with the Second Street corridor. However, the $7.6 million in funding for the project did not make it onto the bond referendum ballot.

According to Pollyanne Melton with the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department, funding for the project is currently available through the a federal program called the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users

, also known as SAFETEA-LU. Funds for the program are administered in the state by the Texas Department of Transportation.

“The initial problem we see is that TxDOT is not likely to fund the entire $11.5 million needed for the project at one time,” she said. “We may need to break the project up into multiple phases in order to get funding over time.”

The Great Streets improvements are designed to create streetscapes that are safe, comfortable places for walking, cycling or riding public transportation. Sidewalks are widened to 18 feet, and divided into three use zones: an 8-foot curbside zone for furnishings and street trees; an 8-foor pedestrian clear zone; and a 2-foot building frontage zone.

Melton said the improvements will better facilitate public transportation on the two streets, allowing for larger, better equipped transit stations. With underground utilities, the clutter of poles and wires will also be gone from the streets. The Great Streets improvements are designed to transform the north-south streets into a pedestrian friendly environment that reinforces the image of Austin’s downtown as a residential and cultural destination.

The total cost of the project is $14.4 million. The city is ultimately looking for $11.5 million from the SAFTEA-LU grant, and will match that with $2.9 million of its own money.

The Design Commission approved a plan to allow staff to divide the program into two phases for the purpose of obtaining the funding. Phase 1 would include all of the project’s design costs, and would fund the project between 3rd and 7th streets. Phase 2 would complete the project between 7th and 11th streets.

Melton said the city would likely seek about $7.5 million in its first grant application, looking for the balance of the $11.5 million at a future date. The completed grant application is scheduled to go before the City Council on April 20, and is due at TxDOT by April 28.

CTRMA seeks federal funds for US 290E

Road expansion project eligible for extra funding due to evacuation route status

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority is seeking $50 million in federal funding for the expansion of US 290 East, noting its special purpose as an evacuation route for Houston during a hurricane.

The expansion of US 290E is the CTRMA’s second toll project. During a monthly update on the project Wednesday, Mario Espinoza, director of community relations, told the board that the agency is working with Congressman Michael McCaul’s office to secure an earmark on the road project in future transportation appropriations.

The expansion will be a joint project between the Texas Department of Transportation and the CTRMA, with TxDOT providing much of the design work and “owning” the roadway and CTRMA bidding the construction plans and operating the toll road operation. TxDOT already has presented initial schematic plans of the project, which would expand US 290 from US 183 to FM 973, at a community meeting in January.

Espinoza said the federal funding – while an unexpected windfall for the US 290E project – is certainly not guaranteed, given the federal funding process. Espinoza said it would become more apparent in early summer whether the CTRMA has a chance at getting the money.

In the meantime, the dual feasibility study and traffic and revenue studies continue on the US 290 East project. Engineer Everett Owen reported that the CTRMA continued to make efforts to update the short-listed teams that will be considered for the construction, as well as matching those teams up with minority and small business subcontractors that would have an interest in bidding on the project.

©2006 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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