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Panel ponders timeline for building urban rail line

Tuesday, November 3, 2009 by John Davidson

The city is moving forward with an ambitious schedule for building an urban rail line, with plans to have an operator, a defined route for the first phase construction, and some preliminary engineering completed by February or March 2010.


In a report to the Council Comprehensive Planning and Transportation Committee Monday afternoon, city Transportation Department Director Rob Spillar laid out a timeline for the coming year that’s designed to culminate in a bond election in November 2010.


Council Member Sheryl Cole emphasized that certain aspects of a proposed urban rail plan would need to be settled over the next five months.


“If we’re trying to set ballot language by August, then we definitely need to know, by early spring, a potential operator, and we need to have some good economic modeling done, and we need to have a route,” Cole said.


Spillar agreed that the Transportation Department would need to develop enough information by February or March 2010 for City Council to begin the process of conducting a referendum. One crucial question, he said, is what section of an urban rail or streetcar project should be the first to be built.


“We always talked about four or five phases but we really never defined what those were. Those phases were just sort of example phases; they weren’t based on good hard engineering numbers,” Spillar said. “We need now to go back, and in light of how we fund this and what the ridership might be, really come up with a first investment segment.”


That task is what URS, a planning and engineering firm the city has contracted with to address problems related to rail routes and alternatives will be doing in the coming months, according to Spillar.


There is a laundry list of other questions as well. How many people will be riding the initial segment? What is the best route over the river? How much will it cost? Who will build it? How will it get paid for? What are the possible extensions that could be built off it?


And, of course, who will operate it?


Spillar said his recommendation is that the city build and own the rail system, but not operate it. He laid out several possible options for operators: the city could contract with Capital Metro; form a new city department; form a non-profit organization (on the model of Phoenix and Portland); create a special transportation toll authority; or create an inter-municipal rail district in partnership with Lone Star Rail, which currently operates a freight rail line between Austin and San Antonio but is rumored to be in the process of adding commuter rail service.


The question of who operates the rail, said Spillar, “would need to be presented at the same time we present a funding scenario—in February or March.”

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