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Design panel urges city to ‘pull trigger’ on rail plan

Wednesday, July 9, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

The Design Commission has joined Rep. Mike Krusee (R-Round Rock) in a call for Austin to move forward as quickly as possible on a full-scale urban rail plan.

 

The draft of an initial letter – which was actually divided into two letters – encouraged Mayor Will Wynn and City Council to act decisively on an anticipated presentation from downtown plan consultant ROMA Design Group. Commissioners made their decision based on a presentation from Urban Design Officer Jim Robertson at last month’s meeting.

 

Krusee has called on Council to try to get the proposal on the ballot this November. The Design Commission appeared to support that timeline, if it could be reasonably done. In his commentary in Monday’s Statesman, Krusee criticized the region for “studying” the issue for four years, possibly pushing the start of rail construction to 2010 and completion of the rail line to 2015. What will gas cost then? Krusee pondered.

 

The first letter out of the Design Commission will stress that point, but the point-of-view from the commissioners may vary a bit. Members of the commission are more concerned with the issue of density: Is enough being created along the rail line to support commuter and urban rail service for the region?

 

That likely will be explored in a second letter from the commission. During a discussion of the draft letter Monday night, author Richard Weiss noted the concern of the commission that the density promised in Station Area Plans would not be enough to support rail.

 

“If you’re going to have rail, you have to have density,” said Weiss, who noted the real message of the letter needed to be,” You need to pull the trigger on rail.”

 

Even Mueller, created as a transit-oriented community, only supports 12.7 units per acre, Weiss noted. Chair Girard Kinney, who has been active in the Mueller planning effort, noted that the number could be pushed up to 20 units per acre.

 

“There’s nothing in zoning that would preclude that,” Kinney said. “You can densify Mueller. There’s nothing holding it back except the traffic counts on surrounding streets.”

 

It was unclear from the discussion whether the employment base was being figured into the potential transit ridership. While the number of housing units may be less than satisfactory for a full range of ridership, the development will house a number of major employers, with the potential of various types of ridership.

 

The Design Commission draft letter also noted the need to develop a rail plan in tandem with other modes of transportation. Yes, the Station Area Planning was an issue, but the commission also was concerned that rail was not integrated into a full transit plan that considered a combination of automobile, rail, bicycle and bus.

 

That point was pulled out of the letter, along with a line that Weiss added about the need for the Riverside-to-ABIA connection in the full 15.9-mile build out of the line. A couple of alternatives are being considered. Weiss noted it was important to create the most ridership for the line, and that capture of UT students was an important component.

 

Kinney, however, said there was a natural tension on the line between higher ridership – using Riverside to boost users – and a more direct route to the airport with fewer stops – intended to provide the speediest way for people to get to and from their flights.

 

His problem with the proposed system, Kinney said, was that it was a compromise between a slower streetcar circulator that chugs slowly from stop to stop and a light rail system that is used by riders to get to a destination quickly.

 

In the case of the Riverside-to-ABIA line, the line needs multiple stops for students but speed for the ABIA. It’s difficult for those two goals to co-exist in one line, Kinney said. No one has ever said they did not want to get to the airport quickly, he noted.

 

“The real conflict is between wanting to serve a bunch of people – the highest concentration of students in the city and get them to school – and combine that with a system that is going to the airport, where nobody’s going to want to stop along the way,” Kinney said. “I’m worried about the compromise.”

 

Capital Metro handles those competing goals – speed and ridership – on its bus service line by providing both express service and slower routes with more stops.

 

Even though many of the members participated in the discussion, Commissioner Joan Hyde noted that starting down the road of double guessing which choice might be the best alternative would be stepping outside the Design Commission’s purview.

 

“We should not be doing transportation planning on this committee,” Hyde warned.

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