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Ambitious rail planning, but no plans to attract stimulus funding

Tuesday, August 4, 2009 by Austin Monitor

The Transportation Department briefed the Comprehensive Planning and Transportation Council Committee on their aggressive schedule for the Strategic Mobility Plan, and raised some doubts as to whether Austin would be well positioned to receive any of the Federal Government’s stimulus money.


Gordon Derr, Assistant Director of the city’s Transportation Department, brought Council Members Laura Morrison, Sheryl Cole and Chris Riley up to speed on the mobility planning program, with an eye toward a possible bond election on November 10, 2010 to support an urban rail system.


The Strategic Mobility Plan (SMP) will be broken into two phases, the first will be a “gap analysis” looking at current problems across the transportation system. Phase two would consist of corridor studies that look at potential improvements for all types of transportation, including bicycling, rail, car and foot. Derr told the committee that this would be “looking at corridors as a system, not just an intersection.”


The Transportation Department has been gathering information and talking with consultants who have conducted similar SMPs in other cities. “We’re not above stealing good ideas,” Derr joked. Reno and San Antonio are also eyeing trolley systems similar to the one that has been discussed in Austin, and Derr left open the possibility that multiple cities may be able to save some money by working together to share information and perhaps to get discounted rates on bulk orders of trolley cars and other components.


The department is also including studies that would develop a proposal for urban rail in central Austin. These initial phase studies are intended to give Council enough data so that they can make the decision whether or not to bring urban rail bond proposals to the voters next year. Primarily, these initial studies would consist of preliminary engineering, environmental assessments, and developing plans for how such a rail system may ultimately cross Lady Bird Lake and head out to the airport.


The schedule Derr laid out, council members noted, is ambitious. “We see this project as not just a planning effort, this is really the beginning phases of implementation,” he said of the SMP. The department aims to have an RFQ for the Strategic Mobility Plan on the street by August 21, with a presentation before council on October 22 and a contract awarded by November 5. The urban rail preliminary engineering RFQ would be out by September 11 and awarded by council by December 10. Derr envisioned that the environmental studies and alternative routes across the lake would utilize the city’s environmental rotation list for the work.  


The ambition of the SMP was in marked contrast to Derr’s presentation on a federal grant for transportation projects. The TIGER grant program provides $1.5 billion across the country for transportation projects, although no state can get more than $300 million. Each project must be between $20 million and $200 million. Given those constraints, Derr said, the city would likely be better off focusing on smaller projects that had a higher chance of getting funding. Projects must be completed by 2012 and submissions for the grant are due September 15.


Derr said the grants were directed toward long term outcomes like improving existing facilities, sustainability, economic competitiveness, as well as job creation. He said the goals include bike, pedestrian, roadway and transit possibilities, and that the department would come up with a primary and secondary project for the August 20 city council. Next Tuesday night he will be soliciting project ideas in front of the Urban Transportation Commission.


Council Member Riley questioned what types of projects would fit into the $20-30 million range Derr was suggesting. The Assistant Director said trail system links and bridges for the Walk-a-Day trail system; East Riverside improvements to set up for a potential rail line; and a Great Streets program.


Riley said a six-week time span was very quick and Derr admitted he didn’t know how far along plans for projects needed to be for submittal. “I’m trying to muster some optimism here and that’s challenging because it sounds like we’re still at a very early stage just throwing around concepts when we need to be pretty far along six weeks from now, and I’m not hearing much about how we’re going to get from point A to point B,” Riley said.


When he was pressed about a work plan, Derr was unable to come up with one. “It’s possible that we won’t be able to make that deadline,” he admitted. “I guess this is sort of a back door way to start soliciting projects for the strategic mobility plan, and hopefully we’ll have lots of good ideas from folks about corridor projects that we need to look at.”


Riley stepped in again, suggesting that the Transportation Department go through neighborhood plans and identify already requested projects, and said the Bicycle Plan likely has existing project plans that could use that money, “rather than come up with whole new ideas.” Riley said the Lady Bird Lake boardwalk would cost $12 million, and that connections to it could get the city over $20 million. Cole also suggested improvements to the trail system in Southeast Austin and sidewalks along MLK Drive. 


Morrison shared Riley’s concern about the funds. She told In Fact Daily, “it’s perhaps a reach, but there’s no reason we shouldn’t be reaching. Chris had a good suggestion – go with the plans that we already have in place, because we have some good specific projects.”


In Fact Daily received the following comment on Tuesday’s story from Austin Transportation Director Robert Spillar : “ When it comes to attracting OPM (Other People’s Money) – particularly federal grant monies, the City is committed to getting our fair share. Your headline was wrong and it left a harmful impression. Rather than serving up staff driven recommendations, the federal TIGER grant opportunity was presented to the Council subcommittee on Comprehensive Planning and Transportation Committee and noted additional comment and suggestions from the public are being taken at the Urban Transportation Committee on Aug. 11. The TIGER grant is specific in its criteria that the projects should be long term, improve existing facilities, promote

economic competitiveness, sustainability and job creation.  Staff will rank various projects for Council consideration on Aug. 20 and develop one or two proposals for the TIGER application. It is important to note the City of Austin has vigorously pursued other grant monies, and recently received $2.4 M in federal stimulus funds to be accepted by the City Council this Thursday. Similarly, staff has worked to attract monies for a variety of transportation and public works projects in the upcoming federal SAFETEA-LU reauthorization process.  The soon to be launched Austin Mobility Program will help the City further refine, prioritize and develop transportation and public works projects for opportunities such as the TIGER or other grant programs.”

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