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Urban rail system could take Red River route, not Manor Road

Tuesday, September 20, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

A proposed route for urban rail, set to go to Council in October, could connect the Capitol complex, the   University of Texas and the Mueller development, with the possibility of putting a maintenance yard within the master-planned community.


The question on urban rail has been whether to send the line north to Mueller or south across the river, with the ultimate goal of connecting to other rail routes such as Capital Metro’s Red Line. This proposal, which city commissions are reviewing, would add about 16 miles of track that would take north-south rail up either Congress and San Jacinto or Lavaca and Guadalupe streets.


Then the rail would turn up Red River Street – not Manor Road, as previously suggested – and hit Hancock Center, follow the existing turnaround under Interstate 35 that cars use for u-turns to head north-bound on Interstate 35, then up Airport Boulevard to Aldrich Street.


Project manager Scott Gross outlined the proposed alternative to the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport Plan Implementation Advisory Committee.

“There are geometric and topographical issues at Manor that makes it very difficult to use it for rail,” Gross told the committee. “That’s what drove us to pursue the Red River corridor. There’s St. David’s. There’s the new development at the former Concordia campus. There’s a higher density of multi-family residential along that corridor, and it’s anchored at the north end by a retail center that is doing well or reasonably well.”


City staff is still reviewing some of the finer details of the proposal, Gross admitted to the committee. The clincher at last week’s meeting was the potential to place a maintenance yard on land inside Mueller. And while the committee has offered strong pushback on putting city water and electric infrastructure inside the master-planned community, members seemed open to a maintenance yard.


“I think the maintenance yard would be a huge political advantage (on the rail option),” said committee member Jim Walker. “If you can plan on seeing something like that coming into Mueller, you can design it well so that it fits in.”


These will be electric cars that will be housed overnight in another location and not on open land in Mueller, Gross said. And because the cars the city has chosen are electric, the potential for fumes or spills would not be the same as it would be heavier vehicles.


Walker’s fear has been that rail was never going to make it out to Mueller. Mueller was designed around rail. Berkman Drive in Mueller was built to carry rail. But the master-planned development has not necessarily needed rail to perform. The Hancock route, eventually connected to Manor, might be the best option to finally see rail actually make its way out to what many envisioned as the city’s largest transit-oriented development.


In his review with the committee, Gross outlined the many options the city had considered to get into Mueller: Manor Boulevard was low on density. Martin Luther King Boulevard was not particularly amenable and remains the one access point to State Highway 130. Heading into Mueller off Interstate 35 onto Philomena triggered some frontage road and right of way conflicts. And coming in from the north off Barbara Jordan Boulevard or 51st Street didn’t work.


The Airport-Aldrich route provides less direct exposure than Berkman, but it would still provide significant coverage within the quarter-mile and half-mile perimeter, which is the distance Gross expects people would be willing to walk or bike in order to board the urban rail.


“We have pretty good coverage of Mueller,” said Gross, showing the committee a map of the area the station could serve. “It’s not perfect, but it’s realistic.”


The city’s urban rail plan, which would roll out in phases, is expected to take between 15 to 20 years to complete, Gross said. Next November’s bond election would underwrite the first phase of construction of the route. The question of who would operate and run the rail line – individually or jointly with other rail providers in the region – is still a point under discussion, Gross told the committee.


“We do want an integrated management scheme so that we’re all – City of Austin, Capital Metro, Lone Star Rail District – partners,” Gross said. “We don’t want to juggle three, four different fare cards, so deciding who is going to operate this system is very much a part of our efforts.”


Early estimates are that the 16.5-mile route, which comes with a steep price tag, could serve 27,600 boardings a day by 2030. Celia Israel, who sits on the RMMA committee, urged Gross to pin down those numbers with some precision. The ability to use this particular path to generate boardings in the university and Capitol complex, Israel said, would be key to selling voters on the concept.


About $5 million in federal funding is available to the city for the urban rail study. The urban rail proposal, which will present a potential first phase, will go to Council in October. At this point, the goal is to split the cost of the rail, 50-50, between local funding and federal New Starts grant. Of that local share, half will come from bonds and the balance from other efforts to raise revenue, such as a tax-increment financing district.

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