About Us

Make a Donation
Fully-Local • Non-Partisan • Public-Service Journalism

Transportation director says city to continue push for urban rail system

Wednesday, March 17, 2010 by Michael Kanin

The continued drive to improve Austin’s urban core will play a key role as city officials prepare the public for the resumption of a bond process for the city’s stalled rail project. In an interview with In Fact Daily, the director of Austin’s Transportation Department, Robert Spillar, discussed issues surrounding the future of urban rail in Austin. His message was clear: Though the project may be stalled for now, there is still a call for rail in the Capital area.


When asked about community buy-in for the project, Spillar said that Austin needs to make an argument for the success of it’s urban core. “Here’s the real issue,” he said, “We (need to be) successful in convincing the citizens of Austin that central Austin—UT, the capitol complex, and downtown—are an important part of our region…because something like 88 percent of the tax revenue generated in that area get exported out of that area to support the rest of the city.”


“If we haven’t already, I think we’ll be able to make (the) argument (that) this is important to keep downtown going,” he added.


Plans to develop a system more expansive than just Capital Metro’s soon-to-open Red Line service were derailed this past week when Mayor Lee Leffingwell announced that he would seek to delay a planned November bond election on rail. That decision, which was unanimously supported by the City Council, represented a dramatic about face for Leffingwell, who had been pushing for quicker funding (see In Fact Daily, March 11).


Spillar echoed what has been widely reported as the key reasons for holding up the bond election: The complicated logistics of the construction that would have to take place to get a rail line across the Colorado River and the need for more regional discussion on operation of the multiple proposed rail projects.


According to Spillar, if the rail project were to use one of the existing bridges, that bridge would have to be closed for as long as a year. “As we got to understand the significant mobility challenge getting in and out of central Austin now,” he said, “contemplating shutting down one of the bridges for a major portion of time to do construction got to be pretty concerning from a mobility perspective.”


He added that, because the city would need to work around the bat colony that lives underneath it, reconstructing the Ann Richards Congress Avenue Bridge would be an especially lengthy undertaking.


“I think we are taking a look at how we might re-conceive the process to give us more of an opportunity to let (the construction) issue develop, talk to partners in the south side as well as the north side, and work out an environmental process that helps us develop that decision, and that takes time,” he said. Spillar noted that he felt that this was good for “the decision process.”


As for the holy grail of the system’s development – the demand that would justify its existence – Spillar is optimistic.


“There was an interesting article in the Statesman the other day that said, ‘Oh, look at the new urban rail line, how similar it is to the old street car lines,’” he said. “Well, it’s similar not because we pulled out the old street car lines and copied them, it’s similar because we went where the land use is complimentary . . . And guess where it is? It’s in those neighborhoods that used to be served.”


“You can see neighborhoods that are clearly transit neighborhoods, and you can see corridors, like the Riverside corridor, that clearly have the opportunity to redevelop into even more intense transit neighborhoods,” he continued. “You know one-third of the UT students live in Riverside and they almost all get to campus via transit.”


Spillar doesn’t see the postponement of the rail bond as a letdown. He notes that City Manager Mark Ott has asked his department to generate a timeline that might detail what the next year or so looks like for the urban rail project, and that though he couldn’t give specifics quite yet, the timing of it all would take on at least one new characteristic.


“You know everything that we were trying to compress before May will spread out. And what that will give us the opportunity to do is to coordinate with the public more, and give the public and various agencies and community groups more time to digest and contemplate what we’ve been chewing.”


He added that the slower schedule will also give his department time to think about more comprehensive changes in the way people move around Austin. “I think what you will see is a focus on the strategic mobility plan,” he said. “Many people have said, ‘Why are you so far ahead with rail?’ Well, the reason has been that we have been talking about rail for…years as a community. Its not that we’re only focused on that, it’s that we just happen to be further along. I think what you will see is us focus on the remainder of the strategic mobility plan for the next several months to bring it up to where we are with the rail discussions that we’ve had thus far.”


Spillar thinks that “everything” will start to move forward again in the fall.

Join Your Friends and Neighbors

We're a nonprofit news organization, and we put our service to you above all else. That will never change. But public-service journalism requires community support from readers like you. Will you join your friends and neighbors to support our work and mission?

Back to Top