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Council still pondering phase one of the urban rail system

Thursday, May 31, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

In its second work session on the city’s plan to build a rail system in as many weeks, City Council on Tuesday hashed out planned routes for the first phase of the estimated $550 million rail project.

 

This work session focused on alignment and phasing of the project, and followed last week’s discussion of financing options for Phase 1 of the rail system, which the city plans to fund from a combination of general obligation bonds and federal matching funds.

 

Assistant City Manager Robert Goode explained that though the initial plans were informed by the Transit Working Group of the regional Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO), specific recommendations were from the perspective of the city.

 

The proposed route now on the table for Phase 1 is: a train line that would run from the  Mueller development on the north to downtown and the Convention Center on the south. The train will run along 41st Street, Red River and Guadalupe and Lavaca streets, passing the Capitol, the University of Texas and the Hancock Center HEB grocery store.

 

Asked whether the working group approved the route, Mayor Lee Leffingwell hedged, saying “I think ‘approved’ is too strong a word.”

 

“What we’ve been dealing with in the (Transit Working Group) in the past six months is not specifically a downtown rail system, but a regional system that not only covers the entire city of Austin, but eventually serves our entire region. I think that’s very important,” Leffingwell said. “What we’re really talking about is a regional system that serves people in every part of this community.”

 

While financing the rail system seems the biggest obstacle, another major question has been the proposed route of Phase 1, which to many people’s surprise does not stretch to the Austin Bergstrom Airport. Transportation Director Robert Spillar explained that urban rail lines to airports were generally not economically self-sustaining. An earlier plan that had the first phase of the rail traveling down Riverside Drive has been made even less appealing by the migration of students away from the area, and the fact that the route would likely require a much greater initial investment because it would require the building of bridges.

 

Plans to run rail on Congress Avenue would come in Phase II of the plan, as that would require a “complete rebuilding of the pedestrian scape,” Spillar said. Instead, the train initially would travel on Guadalupe and Lavaca streets in lanes that would allow limited automobile traffic.

 

“A high percentage of this corridor will be transit-priority or transit-only lanes — we estimate about 70 percent,” said Spillar, who noted that this did not include parts of the route that will be on the UT Campus.

 

Spillar said that his department was working with Capital Metro to identify dedicated transit lanes for both rail and bus. He mentioned that meetings with state officials had presented an opportunity for a 17th Street transit mall, which was still being discussed.

 

Spillar estimates a ridership of about 9,000 to 11,000 one-way fares per day on the urban rail from the first day of operation. These numbers are calculated based on the assumption that most riders will walk up to one-half mile to use the rail.

 

Council Member Bill Spelman questioned the decision to focus on the north-central part of the city instead of the “most transit rich” corridor located on North Lamar. Capital Metro is slated to offer a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) service in 2014 that will serve customers on Lamar, South Congress and Burnet Road. The project will be largely financed by a federal grant.

 

Spillar said getting dedicated lanes in that corridor would be difficult, and he also said he was unsure about whether the North Lamar corridor would generate more ridership than the proposed urban rail route. He said it would probably be similar.

 

Though the work session was not focused on financing, the steep $550 million price tag hung in the air — as well as the difficult task of convincing voters to sign off on it, possibly as soon as this November. State Sen. Kirk Watson on Tuesday told In Fact Daily that it is not true that he is opposed to having the measure on the ballot this November. He said he simply does not want it to be on the ballot until it is “ready.”

 

At the work session, Council Member Mike Martinez, a rail advocate, noted one selling point for rail: while startup costs were higher, bus systems were ultimately more costly long term. Martinez is chair of the board of Capital Metro.

 

“When we’re talking about going out for a vote, and it’s $250 million, $275 million that we are asking citizens to consider, it sounds like a lot. It is a lot. And you inevitably hear the other side of it, saying ‘why don’t we rubber-tire system this? It’s cheap. We could do $50 million in the rubber-tire system, and save taxpayer money and have good transportation options.’ … What doesn’t get discussed is what happens 20 or 30 years from now, even 10 years from now, when we have to replace that fleet, we have to expand it, we have to hire all these employees to upkeep it. It’s inevitably more costly in the long run,” Martinez said.

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