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Leffingwell touts possible bond election for 2012 urban rail project

Tuesday, November 30, 2010 by Michael Kanin

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell said Monday that the cost of the initial phase of the city’s planned urban rail project could clock in at around $200 million. If that is the case, the potential 2012 bond package for the project would need to raise a portion of that amount.

 

Leffingwell’s news came as he stood in front of a streetcar on exhibit outside of the Palmer Events Center. The vehicle, brought to Austin on short notice thanks to a call from the city’s transportation department, is built by Portland-based manufacturer United Streetcar. That firm is one of only two that meet standards that would allow the City of Austin to receive federal grant money if its urban rail project takes on a streetcar dimension.

 

But before Austinites can board any working version of the thing, a host of questions remain. “Who’s going to operate it? How much is it going to cost? Exactly where is it going to go? What is the operating cost month-to-month, and who is going to be the operator of that line –that has not been decided,” said Leffingwell. “These are all unanswered questions, and if we’re going to be successful in this, we’re going to have to have good, solid answers to provide voters on all of those questions.”

 

Leffingwell told In Fact Daily that he was very confident that those questions would be answered in time to make a decision on a 2012 bond initiative. “We’ve already gotten a lot of time into this,” he said. “Here we’ve got all that background that we were working on prior to November 2010 — we’ll have almost three years (of preparation).”

 

City officials had hoped to have a rail bond election ready for this year’s ballot. As questions mounted and time got closer, Leffingwell decided to hold off on that part.

 

He told reporters that the city’s 2012 bond wouldn’t necessarily be married to the total cost of the initial phase of Austin urban rail. “We want to bond some of that and we want to look for other sources of revenue,” he said. “We want to have partners in this—definitely (Travis) County has a stake in this, the University of Texas has a stake in this, we (also) want to see what interest the State of Texas,” has, as well as others.

 

Leffingwell noted that federal funds could come after things get going. “The way financing works at the federal level, you have to have an initial phase started before you’re a serious contender for federal funds to build out the system.”

 

The city has not determined the total number of phases for the project. The first phase, according to Leffingwell, “would at least get across the river – establish a beachhead in South Austin, so to speak.”

 

Leffingwell added that he felt the city needed a rail project. “We have become a very big city, our downtown area is already congested, there is no room to put additional roads because the roads are already there, the buildings are already there,” he said. “If we’re going to have another million people come to Austin in the next 30 to 40 years, we’ve got to find (some way) to move those people around.”

 

To that he added the familiar downtown-as-an-economic-engine argument: “If downtown succeeds, Austin succeeds. If downtown fails, Austin is going to be a failure,” he said. “I try to point out to folks all over the city that 80 percent of the taxes we collect from downtown properties actually go to subsidize services out in the suburbs. So even if you never come downtown, downtown is still important to you.”

 

United Streetcar is currently involved in two projects. Those efforts will result in six cars for its native Portland and seven cars for a system in Tucson, Ariz. The current rate for a standard version of their vehicle is roughly $3.5 million. Should Austin complete its 16.5 miles worth of track, United Streetcar President Chandra Brown told In Fact Daily that the city could need between 12 and 14 cars.

 

But the Portland Company is not the only one looking for business. Siemens should be visiting Austin in the next year also with its version of the streetcar.

 

Leffingwell wasn’t the only regional official to stop by the streetcar. Capital Metro CEO Linda Watson and Austin Mayor Pro Tem and Capital Metro Board Chair Mike Martinez also stopped by for a look-see. Council Member Laura Morrison said she had just visited family in Portland, so she had seen the actual street cars in action.

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