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Mueller neighborhood gets first look at plans for Urban Rail system

Friday, April 8, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

Residents of the Mueller development got their first chance to weigh in on actual plans to push a rail spur out to the redeveloped site of the city’s former airport Wednesday night.


Of course, those plans are no more tangible than a draft environmental impact statement right now and won’t materialize without voter approval of a massive transportation bond issue next fall. Still, it brings the concept of Mueller as a 700-acre transit-oriented master-planned community full circle.


Rail access was Mueller’s calling card almost as soon as plans to re-use the former airport began in earnest in 1997. Jana McCann, the city’s former urban design officer and a current rail consultant, remembers Berkman Drive being planned as the original rail spine of the community. Then, three years ago, master developer Catellus, in discussions with Capital Metro, asked for an adjusted alignment, one that would push the line to the Mueller Town Center.


Gordon Derr, assistant director of the city’s Transportation Department, points to the connectors between the Red Line and the Capitol complex and University of Texas being the first obvious branches of the city’s proposed urban rail project. McCann agrees but notes that by the time that construction is finished, Mueller might actually have the kind of density that could support a rail station or two.


“By that time, we could have 10,000 people out here, maybe more than that,” McCann said. “That’s what we always said, 10,000 jobs and 10,000 people.”


McCann and Jim Adams, who share McCann Adams Studio, estimate that Mueller currently has about 2,000 residents and maybe 3,000 jobs. While the site is home to the Dell Children’s Hospital and SEDL research center, the University of Texas has yet to put much on its 14-acre research campus site, and there is plenty of land that remains viable for development, Adams said.


The current environmental impact study on the proposed 16.5-mile urban rail line is expected to take up to 18 months. Julieann Dwyer of the Federal Transit Administration’s Fort Worth office, who toured the proposed urban rail line area, said FTA will be looking at the project as a whole, while assessing how the preferred route deals with specifics such as interaction with water crossings, parks, historical features and even air quality and potential wildlife impacts.


“We try to capture as much information as possible to get a complete overall picture of the impacts of the project,” Dwyer said. “We look at what they have done, the methodologies they’ve used for arriving and obtaining information, and we determine whether those match and meet our requirements.”


Derr uses the example of the Congress Avenue bat colony. Austin will have two options for crossing Lady Bird Lake under the urban rail plan: either the Congress Avenue bridge or a new crossing option to the east of the bridge. That raises questions about the bat colony, from whether it will be disturbed by a crossing to whether a second colony site should be created under a potential new bridge to create new nesting areas for the Mexican free-tailed bats.


The urban rail line will be far different from Capital Metro’s Red Line, a more nimble arrangement of smaller cars with tighter turn radiuses. Critics have called the proposal, which could cost upwards of $1.3 billion, no more than a glorified streetcar system, but transportation consultant Glenn Gadbois called the downtown rail line one of the few serious alternatives to densify Austin.


“Downtown is the economic engine that supports the region, a magnet to attract new business and bring in new revenue, but it’s choking upon itself,” Gadbois said. “We don’t have the traditional option of just bigger and wider roads here. We can’t afford to waste space in that way, and as a consequence, rail makes sense to start providing some way to get in and out of the central hub.”


Gadbois, unlike urban rail critics, does not consider the price tag to be a deal breaker for downtown rail. Downtown rail can circulate around the core and help deliver from outlying areas for about $1 billion. A fix for Interstate 35 through Austin, by comparison, could cost upwards of $10 billion.


“We can piddle around the edges, and add a managed lane to MoPac, but what are your options for high capacity change?” Gadbois asked. “What can we do that will make the most sense for addressing our needs?”

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