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Urban rail proposal could headline jam-packed November election

Wednesday, May 23, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

Advocates hope to put an urban rail proposal on November’s ballot, asking voters to approve up to $275 million locally through General Obligation Bonds to help meet an anticipated $550 million price tag for Phase I of a proposed urban rail line in Austin.

 

Other rail supporters argue that November’s ballot will be too crowded, and worry that may doom the project from the start. They are arguing that the matter should be put off until the city has a more detailed plan and time to tell voters about the benefits.

 

Even without the proposal, November’s election is shaping up to be jam-packed. Central Health is expected to seek additional funds for a planned University of Texas Medical School. There is a possibility that Austin ISD will go forward with a tax ratification election in November, at which time they can ask voters to add up to nine cents to the current tax rate. And earlier this week the city’s Bond Election Advisory Task Force settled on a recommendation of between $400 and $575 million in bond requests – without money for rail – for November.

 

Finally, voters will be asked to weigh in on several complex charter amendments including a change in election dates and a switch to single-member districts. That will come at the end of a long ballot that starts with candidates for President, winds through state offices and ends up at local issues.

 

City officials say Phase I of the urban rail will be 5.5 miles and run from the Mueller Development to Downtown Austin via Red River. The estimates anticipate a schedule that would see the rail opening in 2021, conservatively, if everything goes according to plan.

 

Jeffery A. Parker & Associates, Inc. presented a plan at Tuesday’s City Council work session that would establish half of the funding – $275 million – locally, and obtain the remaining half from other sources. The hope is that the remainder of the money would be found in Federal FTA New Starts Grants – after first securing local financing.

 

“We are in a very good position, with respect to competing for New Start money… You can’t really begin that process, that competition process, until you have your local funding. You could, but you’re not going to be very competitive,” said Mayor Lee Leffingwell.

 

Additionally, operations and maintenance for the line would be about $16 million per year, and is anticipated to grow at about three percent per year.

 

“I think that the critical issue at this point is the operating expense,” said Parker. “That is something that many communities don’t focus on at this stage; it’s something which falls almost entirely on local. There’s usually limited state support for those kinds of things. There’s no federal operating support other than the ongoing capital maintenance of the assets that you have, which is rather limited… It’s important to know where that is coming from. It does fall rather disproportionately on local.”

 

As a partial means to cover operations and maintenance costs, the fare recovery rate for the line is estimated at 15 percent, something Council Member Mike Martinez questioned as a “high benchmark,” citing a current recovery rate of about 11 percent for the Metro Rail.

 

“There’s still a whole lot more work to be done, because I don’t think we anticipate 7,000 boardings today on Phase I,” said Martinez.

 

Transportation Director Robert Spillar clarified that this was a reasonable estimate – and that he thought the 7,000 boardings per day was reasonable, once the increased frequency of trains and difference in average customer was taken into account. Parker added that he felt the number was low, compared to national numbers and that he was pushing for a number closer to 20 percent.

 

The work session was the first of two, and was an opportunity for City Council to discuss the recommended financing plan of the project. The second work session will focus on organizational and alignment details, and bond program discussions will take place starting in June.

 

Assistant City Manager Bert Lumbreras told the Council that a report on proposed infrastructure improvements, and their associated costs from the taxing entities in the region, ACC, AISD, Travis County and Central Health, would be available by June 22.

 

“We are well aware that we are not the only body in this region. And we are closely watching what everybody else is going to be doing, and that is certainly going to be a factor in our final decision,” said Leffingwell.

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