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Details emerge about costs of rail river crossing

Thursday, July 15, 2010 by Michael Kanin

The cost of a new bridge connecting downtown and south Austin via urban rail has been budgeted for as much as $36.8 million. If built, such a structure could feature space for rail, bus, and pedestrian and bicycle access.


In an interview, City of Austin Transportation Department Director Robert Spillar told In Fact Daily that policy makers could, alternatively, elect to retrofit either the Ann Richards Congress Avenue Bridge or the First Street Bridge to accommodate a potential urban rail project. Though no hard-dollar figures are yet available for that option, Spillar said that costs — including those associated with traffic delays and the less-quantifiable frustration factor caused by construction — would be comparable.


“When you throw in the idea of retrofitting the existing bridge, (it) means you have to contemplate closing it down for an extended period of time,” he said. “So we might as a city organization not be paying those costs, but somebody’s paying those costs.”


The figures that the transportation department used when it developed its nearly $1.3 billion cost estimate for the urban rail system were engineered to reflect the highest amount of funding it could take to carry the project across the river. In this case, that number was deemed to be the price tag for a new bridge. How urban rail – either light rail or streetcars – reaches South Austin is one of the big question marks in the proposal.


The figures that Spillar discussed included hefty contingency allowances, which range from 30 to 50 percent. He noted that those estimates were designed to cover a host of unknowns.


“That’s not telling people that we don’t know what we’re doing,” he said. “We’re just saying, ‘Look, the greatest unknowns are going to be right there. So let’s make sure that we’re going in and hopefully continuously reducing the cost estimates as we move forward.’”


As for the amount of time it might take to construct either of the river-crossing options, Spillar said that it was still too early to deliver a comparison of the two. He suggested that additional considerations about the effort could also complicate a retrofit.


“One of the challenges with the Congress Avenue bridge is that you’ve got a resident bat colony during the summer and spring and fall, so that shortens the window when you could even do anything … to a winter window,” he added. “South First, although it doesn’t have bats, it’s a busier bridge than the Congress Avenue Bridge, so it’s pretty critical to our North-South travel.”


He noted that reconstructing one of the existing bridges could cause some form of shutdown for “a year, year and a half.”


Neither option has emerged as preferable, Spillar said.


“If there were a silver bullet here, we would be professing it and going after it,” he added.


The construction of urban rail will likely be dependent on funding through a 2012 bond initiative. It may also require a tax increase.


Spillar’s office will release an alternative evaluation of the proposed urban rail project today. That will be followed by a conceptual engineering design and a pre-engineering document that he is hoping will bring on “more detailed environmental studies” this fall.


Spillar echoed his view about the importance of urban rail to downtown Austin. “If we believe that central Austin is the economic core of the region … if we want it to continue to be the economic engine, and be prosperous, we have got to figure out how to get … (our growing population) downtown,” he said. “The intersections are full — they’re full. They’ve been full for 20 years.”

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