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Council members review maps for proposed urban rail system

Wednesday, June 15, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

Council members got their first look Tuesday at route options for a proposed light rail system as part of a projected expansion of mobility options in Austin’s congested urban core. Austin voters could see an urban rail bond issue on the ballot as soon as November 2012.


However, many questions must be answered, including what entities might pay for such a system, before the Council can feel comfortable putting an item before the voters.


At a special called Council work session, city staff presented what is likely the first in a series of proposals related to an urban rail system. The four maps prompted comments from Council members about just what portion of the city should be served by any initial rail projects.


The call for an urban rail system comes in response to the area’s massive growth and resulting increase in traffic congestion. Prompted by Mayor Lee Leffingwell, the Council is study whether to place an urban rail bond referendum on the ballot next year. Capital Metro voters, by a slim margin, rejected a 52-mile, $1.9 billion light rail system in 1999, and approved the current $90 million, Leander to Downtown MetroRail system in 2004.


Numerous studies – including the city’s own Strategic Mobility Plan – point out that the population of Austin and Travis County has doubled in the past 20 years and is expected to double again in the next 25. According to city staff, the region’s employment core – the University of Texas, the Capitol Complex, and the Central Business District – is full at peak traffic times, limiting growth.


“Existing freeways are full and existing arterials are constrained,” according to the staff’s report, and the result is a “ring of congestion or constraint.” The Capitol Complex and the surrounding area are set to add up to15,000 jobs over the next several years; meanwhile, expansion of the city’s arterial highways could add capacity for 10,000.


The answer, staff said, is a “balanced multimodal system” built around urban rail. With a quality urban rail system, the area’s capacity could increase by 10,000 per hour.


Staff presented four examples of first proposals for such a system, each one hitting stops in the Capitol Complex, the UT campus, and downtown.


The first example – the “CBD West/Capitol/UT” — would run for 2.9 miles on Guadalupe and Lavaca streets between Sixth and 29th streets. Staff projects the capital cost for the project – that’s the initial cost to the city before partnering with other organizations or federal agencies – would be between $250-$260 million. Maintenance costs would be between $8 million and $11 million per year.


The “Downtown to Red Line” train would also run up and down Guadalupe and Lavaca but would extend to meet the Red Line commuter train north of UT. The capital costs are projected at $365 million to $380 million, with annual maintenance costs of $10-15 million. The train’s route would be 4.6 miles long.


Staff’s third investment example – the “UT to Riverside” — would expand the “CBD West/Capitol/UT” line by three miles to the south, so the train could cross over the Colorado River and run for several miles east along the Riverside Corridor. The capital costs for this project would be approximately $550 million, and the operational costs would be between $10 and $18 million annually.


The final example presented — the “Riverside to CBD West/Capitol/UT to Red Line” — would combine all the other lines into one, running from the Red Line stop north of UT down across the lake to Riverside and Pleasant Valley. This line, which would provide two maintenance facility opportunities and two Park & Ride opportunities, would cost up to $680 in capital costs and $21 million annually.


Spillar said using the initial funds to build a line across the river could present problems, both in terms of cost and logistics. “If we cross the river in a first investment, that’s where our greatest unknowns are … it’s also where our greatest cost element of this entire project is,” he said. “So if we cross the river, we need opportunities for private investment and high ridership. That’s clearly that Riverside Corridor inside Pleasant Valley.”


But Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez, who serves as chair of the Capital Metro board of directors, had another point. He said that if the whole city is going to be bearing the cost of urban rail, the city has a responsibility to make urban rail – especially its initial line – accessible to as much of the city as possible. He therefore threw his support behind staff’s fourth hypothetical recommendation.


“I think from the standpoint of ridership and connectivity to south of the river, I really think that’s important because we’re asking the entire community to indebt themselves to pay for this,” said Martinez. “So I would hope we would achieve connectivity with the maximum number of residents that we possibly can.”

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