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Downtown panel raises questions about rail viability

Thursday, July 17, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

The Downtown Commission is the second board to raise questions about the viability of rail in general, and the downtown circulator system, in particular.


The Design Commission has raised red flags on the density goals under the city’s station area plans. Last night, Patrick Goetz who serves as the Urban Transportation Commission’s representative to the Downtown Commission, had his own criticism of the proposed plans for rail both inside and outside of downtown.


Rail needs to follow density rather than predict it, Goetz said. To put in rail and then predict it will bring density is like putting the cart before the horse, he said. In Vancouver, density along the rail line has to be 128 units per acre. In the case of Austin, it would make far more sense to put in an effective bus system, Goetz said.


“We should try to spend our money intelligently,” Goetz told his colleagues on the Downtown Commission. “Instead, they took all of Cap Metro’s cash and put it into this system, and we’re not even sure about the scalability of it.”


It is difficult to make the expenditures seem viable when the capacity of the system is no more than 300 people per train on a schedule of half hour increments, Goetz said. Urban Officer Jim Robertson, who was providing the update, said the current commuter rail line between Leander and Austin was simply the beginning.


“It’s seen as a starting point for the system,” Robertson said. “We’re going to double-track in certain areas to increase the headway and get more vehicles on the track, but we’ve got to start with some kind of initial investment, and this was the approach they decided to take.”


Bryan Cady disagreed with Goetz’s suggestion that rail service should be delayed. He said waiting another 5 to 10 years would only make the system less cost effective.


Goetz disagreed, saying that rail in Austin was not even worth thinking about unless it was well planned and grade separated. Instead, Austin has chosen a system that is not going to meet the future needs of the city.


Robert Knight raised his own objections, saying that Rainey Street was about to be one of the densest areas of the city; yet it was not going to be connected to rail. The only way rail was going to be successful, he joked, was if someone cooked the books.


“The advice we’re getting is from rail consultants who are biased toward rail,” Knight said, who owns property in the Rainey area. “I’m not necessarily saying we should put the brakes on this, but let’s go out and make sure the right questions are being asked and we’re getting the right answers. Let’s go ask some people who are opponents to pick at it a little bit.”


Charlie Betts of the Downtown Austin Alliance was cast in the role of rail defender. Rail is one way to give access to downtown, and access to downtown “is the No. 1 threat to the continued economic vitality in downtown.”


The commuter rail line is important, but it was equally important to see a connector circulator system that would take the people who are dropped off at the Convention Center and make sure they make it to their destinations.


“We think when the commuter rail comes in at the Convention Center, we need – as the mayor has said – a good logical way to connect the dots,” Betts said. “We need to be able to move people through to the three major communities – downtown, university and state offices – and we think this pretty effectively does that.”


After some wordsmithing, board members agreed to pass a resolution asking Council to “critically scrutinize all transportation alternatives.”

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