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City to investigate ‘alternative’ rail routes for future projects

Wednesday, August 26, 2009 by Jacob Cottingham

The city continues to plan for alternative routes for current rail traffic through the area in order to accommodate future light rail and/or streetcar projects. The studies include alternatives to a Congress Avenue crossing over Lady Bird Lake, among other corridors.

 

City of Austin Transportation Department Director Rob Spillar spoke recently with In Fact Daily about the department’s ongoing negotiations with two environmental engineering firms tasked with adding a further level of detail to the city’s urban rail plan.

 

The plan for a downtown streetcar/light rail circulator came before the CAMPO Transit Working Group in February, but Spillar said “we’ve sort of been in a holding pattern while we search for funds to do some more advanced planning and engineering …before we bring it out to the voters.”

 

The Transportation Department used their rotating list of firms to select Shaw Environmental and URS, who are in negotiations with the city. They would tackle the planning and engineering problems related to the rail route and alternatives.

 

Mayor Lee Leffingwell has said he wants to take a rail plan as well as road and pedestrian improvements to the voters in November 2010.

 

Originally, the city’s rough plan was to use the Ann Richards Congress Avenue Bridge as a means of getting the rail line across the lake. However, Spillar said there were several “operational issues” which may affect that path. A Congress crossing would have a limit of one set of rails, hampering efficiencies and causing a bottleneck for train traffic.

 

Secondly, he said, was the issue of the bats — much beloved by tourists and locals. Spillar and others fear construction on the bridge could adversely impact the colony of an estimated 500,000 Mexican free-tail bats living beneath it.

 

Another factor to consider is whether or not to take the tracks down Congress in the first place. Spillar said that the Great Streets makeover on Brazos street—widening the sidewalks along the lines of 2nd Street—presents an opportunity to avoid cost overrun risks and construction delays should the line avoid Congress. Because utilities along Brazos are being moved under the Great Streets project, adding a rail line along that avenue would be much easier.

 

“We need to check back in with the community and make sure that when they said they wanted rail on Congress that they understood what that meant in terms of construction and cost… and whether Brazos is a suitable alternative,” he said.

 

Spillar said that the environmental and engineering studies would also “go back and look at the operational implications and ridership implications” to figure out what the best phasing options would be. The proposed system is 15.5 miles long, but would be constructed across several phases, which would come online over a staggered timeline.

 

He said the city would also like to get better information about “how we get to Seaholm” regarding the transit line’s path to the Seaholm site west of Lamar. Spillar said there may be a way to lower the initial cost by “re-thinking” the track’s dog leg down to 3rd and San Antonio.

 

The “goal is to go as fast as we can to get a good definition of what a first constructible piece might look like, and how you get across the river and have that information for policy makers by this spring so they can make critical decisions about when we need to go to the voters for funding,” Spillar summarized. He hopes the engineering firms will be able to start their studies by October, with presentations on the alternatives due in the spring.

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