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Council votes to move downtown rail plan forward

Friday, December 11, 2009 by Jacob Cottingham

Eyeing a potential November 2010 bond election for a downtown rail circulator, City Council – absent Mayor Pro-tem Mike Martinez – voted 6-0 to authorize negotiations with a local firm for a preliminary engineering study that will be critical to answering key questions about the project.


Before voting, Council heard a briefing from Transportation Director Rob Spillar. He outlined the congestion problems that have plagued the central part of the city, primarily around the three main employment areas: the University of Texas, the State of Texas and the Central Business District. He also brought the Council up to speed on recent activity, namely July’s Downtown Circulation Study and last month’s launching of the Strategic Mobility Plan.


Spillar said that the city was running out of “quick fixes” for transportation congestion, and relayed the importance of the urban rail plan in the city’s overall mobility plan. He said city staff had begun working on some of the preliminary parts of the rail plan but needed another one to two years to prepare before any construction would begin.


Spillar envisioned pulling in Austin Rail Partners, the engineering firm, to help finish out the alternative analysis Capital Metro had begun. The firm would also work with staff and public comments to decide where the first investment segment would be. Such a decision would be based on future system demands and connectivity, options for crossing Lady Bird Lake, and capacity in the “central city” for routes.


The ultimate vision is for a streetcar or light rail system that would connect Mueller, UT, the Capitol, CDB and Seaholm, Riverside Drive and the airport. The first segment would also impact the initial ridership numbers, Spillar said. Those answers should be forthcoming in Feburary or March, according the timeline he laid out. Spillar said he personally thought that the city may end up needing two north/south segments and two east/west segments to accommodate passengers without taking away lane-miles of streets.


Other questions that the firm will help answer include the process for designing and building the line. The transportation director said that the amount of planning done before beginning amounted to a series of tradeoffs between up front costs, risk of budget overrun, flexibility to incorporate changes and the delivery method.


By May, Spillar hopes that the city will be able to decide who would operate the system, and on Thursday outlined five possibilities: Capital Metro, the Lone Star Rail District, the CTRMA, a specially formed non-profit or the City of Austin. Spillar, Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Council Members Sheryl Cole and Laura Morrison all expressed a desire for the city to be left out of assuming operations of the line.


Spillar said that the firm’s work would refine previous cost estimates and areas of risk which would impact a contingency portion of the overall projected cost. If the city is able to construct the first portion of the urban rail with local funds, it would enable Austin to use that to match potential federal dollars streaming from a more rail-friendly administration in Washington. He also stressed the enhanced benefits of local scheduling and control of the construction if local dollars were used initially.


Cole made it clear to Spillar that the department and consultant should be forthcoming about any problems that could deter a timeline, and stressed that the overall project should not be compromised by a timeline to get a bond out in November. She then indicated that March 1 was a “drop dead date” for crucial answers about the operating entity, overall cost, route and funding. Cole was concerned that operating costs be effectively communicated to citizens as well as the impact any bond may have on the city’s financial health.


Most of the council members on the dais had something to say. Leffingwell, who’s support of a rail bond was part of his campaign, was supportive of the presentation and said the plan should “emphasize a multimodal approach” to transportation. Morrison expressed concern for the land values along Manor that could rise and end up displacing neighborhoods that have been around for decades. Council Member Bill Spelman wondered what it would take for Spillar to recommend to Council that the city not move forward on its bond. Spillar, choosing his words carefully merely opined, “if Council doesn’t feel comfortable we’ve given enough information.”

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