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City belatedly brings urban rail proposal to Travis County

Wednesday, August 31, 2011 by Michael Kanin

A perceived lack of interaction between City of Austin transportation officials and Travis County overshadowed the official presentation of urban rail before the Commissioners’ Court on Tuesday.


Precinct 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt was blunt.


“The invitation has been open for more than a year now, and we haven’t seen much of you,” she said to city staff. “I am a huge proponent of rail and I really want to participate…I have been a little frustrated, frankly, at leaving the invitation open and sort of being left sitting at the restaurant waiting for my date to show up.”


The city will likely seek the county’s fiscal involvement in the multi-million dollar project. Still, after the hearing, Eckhardt told In Fact Daily that such an undertaking could prove difficult.


“Financial participation by counties is a strange animal because we are not statutorily authorized to fund rail specifically,” she said. “Because transportation funding has become such a patchwork in our current financial circumstance—but also in our long-standing statutory circumstance, we will have to be very creative and very collaborative and very efficient.”


Contacted later, Mayor Lee Leffingwell released the following statement via email: “Today the City staff formally asked the Commissioners Court for permission to work with County staff,” Leffingwell said. “We have taken very deliberate action during this process, focusing on answering important questions and choosing our steps wisely.”


The Mayor said cooperation between the city and the county is essential for rail to succeed.


“Austin makes up a large part of Travis County, and we look forward to a productive relationship, that could include a financial partnership, as we develop transportation solutions for our future,” he said. “Our region’s mobility success depends on partnerships and strategic planning.” 


Early figures put the total for a complete Austin urban rail system as high as $1.3 billion. The north-south, San Antonio-to-Georgetown rail line proposed by Lonestar Rail could, all told, run into the $2 to $3 billion range. However, each of those projects aims to have some degree of cost offset by the time taxpayers get the bill.


According to City of Austin transportation Director Robert Spillar, initial costs for urban rail could be as high as $680 million. He pointed out that not all of those funds would come from voter-approved bonds. “Certainly, that would not all be city investment,” he said. “That’s where you start to get into the partnership concept, if the federal government plays a roll—of 40 to 50 percent—then that starts to divide that in half; if there are private partners or jurisdictional partners that play a roll, for instance in the donation of right-of-way, etc., that has a beneficial effect on the overall cost.


“So we’ve always talked about a bond issue that’s quite a bit less than even the $650 or $300 million range.”


The city’s plan calls for a system that would eventually stretch from the Mueller development to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. It would also theoretically connect the existing MetroRail Red Line, and future rail projects stretching from Elgin, Georgetown, and San Antonio to downtown Austin.


Precinct 1 Commissioner Ron Davis added his concerns that the city hadn’t done enough public outreach. “The voters and the persons who have to pay the bills here in Travis County should have full knowledge of what we’re doing here,” he said.


Spillar later countered that city transportation staff had conducted an extensive amount of outreach. “We’ve been holding a number of public meetings over the last three, four years,” he said. “One of those meetings was in East Austin at the Carver Museum where we got really good input from the general community.”


Davis represents a sizeable chunk of East Austin.


According to Spillar, the delay in interaction with the county was a timing issue. “The city’s been working to define a proposal even within our own jurisdictional boundaries,” he told a small gathering of reporters. “We’re only reaching now a place where we actually have a proposal on the table…And so we really haven’t had the ability to have a discussion that would be productive.”


The city’s transportation department will be back before the City Council in October with a more filled-in concept.


For her part, Eckhardt believes that the county will be involved as rail moves forward. “I look forward to having pretty robust conversation moving forward,” she said. “I’m pretty confident that will happen.”

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