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Council hears update on $625 million urban rail system

Friday, November 7, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

The City Council heard an update on the $625 million Austin urban rail corridor proposal at Council yesterday, with a tentative financing plan that could rely heavily on federal funding.

CAMPO’s Transit Working Group, chaired by Mayor Will Wynn, has been meeting for months to both craft options and move through the decision tree to evaluate a proposal for a 15.3-mile urban rail line. The system would connect a number of major nodes in the city, from Mueller on the north through the University of Texas and the Texas Capitol downtown, and out to Austin Bergstrom International Airport, using the densely populated East Riverside Drive to build ridership. 

The next step will be to submit the Transit Working Group’s work product to CAMPO staff for review. Transportation Director Rob Spillar recommended a two-pronged approach while CAMPO is reviewing the initial paperwork: initiate the preliminary engineering and environmental documentation, possibly as soon as February; and create a detailed local financing plan for the Phase I backbone.

Spillar also has found some funding for that initial work. The Texas Department of Transportation owes the city rebates and can provide some funding from the 2000 mobility bond by reorganizing priorities.

Depending on the Council’s priority, the time frame for completion could be as long as 8 to 10 years or as short as 5 or 6 years, Spillar said.

To create an affordable project, Spillar has proposed and the transit working group has recommended dividing the urban rail project into four phases, putting the critical – and expensive – backbone of the system on the table first.

The backbone would be the 4.4 miles through downtown, with stops at the New Manor Road Station, University of Texas along San Jacinto, Capitol complex, Seaholm and Downtown/Convention Center. The estimated cost would be $290 million, which could include a new or improved bridge across Lady Bird Lake.

The next three phases could occur in any order. One phase, the Lady Bird Lake segment, would go from the Long/Palmer Center, with a stop on the East Riverside Corridor, ending at Pleasant Valley. The corridor would cost $120 million.

Another phase, the Mueller segment, would start at the Manor Road Station, with stops at the Mueller Town Center and Dell Medical Center. That would cost $80 million. The Manor Road Station also crosses with the Cap Metro Red Line.

A third phase, the ABIA segment, would start at the Pleasant Valley Station and end up at the ABIA terminal, with stops at Montopolis, Metro Center, Outer ABIA and the ABIA terminal, at a cost of $135 million.

Trains would run every 10 minutes. In the University of Texas area, that means a train will pass by every five minutes in one direction or the other. Full system ridership is estimated at 32,000 people a day.

The annual operating cost would be somewhere between $21 million and $23 million, which Capital Metro estimates is still cheaper than what it would be to carry the same number of passengers on a bus line through the same area.

The Transit Working Group has tentatively recommended federal New Start funding to pay for a portion of the cost. If this funding comes through, courtesy of the Federal Transit Administration, it could pay for up to half of the $625 million price tag.

The governance and operation of the urban rail line would belong to the City of Austin and Capital Metro. Spillar noted that the city could move forward with the backbone of the line, and use that price tag to pay for the local contribution of a possible 50-50 split of the potential $625 million cost.

Spillar suggested a potential interim city bond issue. A multi-modal bond could include rail, roadway rehab, interchanges, sidewalks and bikeways.

Council Member Lee Leffingwell said the phasing of the project costs made sense to him. Mayor Pro Tem Brewster McCracken recommended coordinating the cost of the placement of rail in conjunction with existing city projects for items such as utility relocation and road reconstruction along the line.

McCracken asked for additional sketches of the rail line so people could grasp the route. Council Member Sheryl Cole noted the project should be integrated into the city’s ongoing effort to update the current comprehensive plan.

“I think it’s important, especially with the Union Pacific rail work that will ultimately connect rail with Seaholm next to Green,” Cole said. “You talk about multi-modal transportation, and we’re really embarking on looking at this.”

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