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ROMA proposes Mueller-to-ABIA light rail line

Wednesday, April 23, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

By the time ROMA Design officially outlined a proposal Tuesday night for a 16-mile light rail system connecting ABIA to downtown to the Mueller Redevelopment, it was already a major story in the media with a major question attached to it: How is Austin going to pay for it?

It also means that Capital Metro’s board of directors will have to move quickly to get the light rail line on the ballot for November. Unlike the last rail election – which seemed to be years in the making as the transit agency weighed and re-weighed its options – Cap Metro likely will call this latest rail election within the next month or so. In Austin time, that’s practically pulling the trigger on the election before the ink is dry on the paper.

The route is one that was discussed the last time a rail proposition was on the ballot: Mueller to downtown and downtown to Austin Bergstrom International Airport, a site which was built with capacity for a rail stop. At the time, these extra spurs were deemed too expensive. But in a presentation of the route last night, Council Member Brewster McCracken promised the route could be done and without a tax increase.

Mueller was always built as a transit-oriented community, and McCracken, who serves on the Cap Metro board, noted it made sense to create a line from the development to downtown.

“We have a 60-county children’s hospital that will eventually have a significant medical complex, along with 10,000 residents where there may be 100 today, and there’s going to be 25 percent affordable housing,” McCracken said. “That’s really what’s driving the line out to Mueller, the medical complex.”

The entire 16-mile line – which could include an additional spur over to the Long Center, Butler Park and Zilker Park – would be funded by some kind of “value capture” financial instrument. In other words, it’s likely to be similar to a tax-increment finance district. With no firm cost estimates on the table – and no real property value increases estimated to pay to fund construction – there’s little not to like in the initial downtown light rail line proposal.

Texas Monthly Publisher Michael Levy did fire off a missive Tuesday night, calling the rail line “Brewster’s Folly.” Levy said such a line would clog street lanes, take away downtown parking spaces and be handed over to a transit agency with a less-than-stellar track record of making mass transit ventures work.

“In other words, a terribly ambitious politician focused on a silly, capital intensive plan to bring back Tooter Ville trolley cars to downtown Austin after a 100 year absence, instead of simply fixing and properly using buses for people who need and would ride them, without any capital investment and attendant risk, loss of lanes for vehicular traffic, loss of downtown parking spaces, etc.,” Levy wrote. Levy has opposed the idea of a downtown rail system for years, so his position is no surprise.

In the proposal outlined by ROMA – the consultants on the city’s downtown plan — the light rail line likely would connect to three other potential rail lines: Capital Metro’s commuter rail line “Red Line” from Leander to the Austin Convention Center; a potential commuter rail line dubbed the “Sausage Link” that will use existing track out to Manor-Elgin; and the long-awaited and much-discussed Austin-San Antonio Commuter Rail District’s line, which also has promised using tax-increment financing to finally link Georgetown-Austin-San Antonio.

The Mo-Kan rail line, which connects Round Rock and Pflugerville to Downtown Austin, also is in the mix although the potential for the line’s use is much dimmer. The 30-mile freight line eventually could serve as a potential interchange.

Between now and the Capital Metro vote, ROMA Design Group will be putting numbers to the cost of the line and the potential increase to property values along the route, some of which they outlined at last night’s workshop session.

The new light rail line would make use of the nine existing streetcar lines used in the early evolution of Austin. Here are some details about each segment of the route:

Seaholm to Mueller – This segment is about seven miles. ROMA looked at both Manor Road and Martin Luther King Boulevard. Manor Road shows more potential for new development, with 10 proposed stops: Seaholm; CBD; Red Line Rail; Capitol Complex; Brackenridge Hospital; UT Campus/Stadium; Manor Road restaurants; Red Line/MLK transit-oriented development; Mueller Town Center; and Dell Children’s Hospital.

Advantages of a route along Manor Road into Downtown include direct service to the UT campus and a potential site for a maintenance facility. ROMA estimates the route could be a catalyst from an additional 275 acres of development, with 145 acres within 1,500 feet of the Manor Road corridor.

Once the line reaches downtown, it could use either Congress Avenue or San Jacinto Street. The former would provide more direct service to employers; the latter would have less traffic but more conflicts with state parking garages.

Downtown to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport – This route is about 8.6 miles. Options could be either Riverside Drive or a path through green space. The preferred route, and the one with the most traffic and transit use, is Riverside Drive. Destinations served would include Seaholm; CBD; Red Line Rail; TxDOT Complex; Travis Heights; Riverside apartments; Tokyo Electron; Montopolis; a potential Park & Ride at the intersection of SH 71 and US 183; and ABIA.

ROMA estimates this route could be a catalyst for 1,089 acres of redevelopment, with 520 vacant acres ready for short- to mid-term redevelopment. A route through primarily green space would have fewer stops – and be somewhat faster – but have fewer options to hit population centers.

Downtown to Long Center and Zilker ParkROMA also included two options for this particular spur, which has high potential use but fewer options for redevelopment. One 1.2-mile option would follow Riverside and Toomey Road to Barton Creek, with stops at TxDOT complex; hotels; Long Center/Auditorium Shores; Zach Scott Theater; and Town Lake Trail/Butler Fields/Barton Creek.

A second more cramped 2-mile option using Barton Springs Road to Stratford Lane/Loop 1 would include stops for TxDOT Offices; hotels; Long Center/Auditorium Shores; Barton Springs Road restaurants; Barton Springs Pool/Zilker Gardens/Soccer Fields; and Town Lake Trails.

Last night’s session broke into smaller groups so that the consultants could field questions from individuals on the proposal. Urban Design Officer Jim Robertson said a time line has been set to present the plan to Council on May 8 and to the CAMPO Transit Working Group on May 12.

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