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Transit group begins addressing thorny issues

Tuesday, June 26, 2012 by Kimberly Reeves

Following a review of regional transportation basics, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s transit working group has shifted to key issues: how to calibrate the choices for transit and fund the projects?


The CAMPO committee, chaired by Mayor Lee Leffingwell, has worked its way through a variety of plans and options, meeting biweekly since late last year. Last Friday, the group’s members mainly discussed commuter and urban rail issues, as well as whether and how the funding issue should be presented to the public.


This represents the end of the first phase for the group, which must now prepare to present its consensus to various stakeholders over the coming months, including CAMPO’s Transportation Policy Board. The committee won’t meet again until September, when it begins to refine its proposal for improving the transportation infrastructure in the Austin metro area.


Leffingwell, who met with Federal Transit Administration Administrator Peter Rogoff last week, stressed the need to come up with a regional plan with appropriate options based on a 30-year horizon for transportation.


Already, the transit group has been getting pushback from individual communities. Pflugerville City Council, for instance, recently passed a resolution opposing the use of the MoKan corridor – an abandoned rail line that runs through the city – for a new light rail service. The MoKan track once was used to connect Texas with Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri.


Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt, who attended a feedback session in Pflugerville, said her takeaway was not opposition to rail but frustration over using the  MoKan corridor through Pflugerville.


“The vast majority of people, including elected officials, are very supportive of rail,” Eckhardt told her colleagues on the committee. “They’re just extremely concerned about using the current existing right way.”


Pflugerville wants the line where it works best, and for city leaders, that’s not through the middle of the historic downtown area. The area has historic buildings and limited parking, making it difficult to use as a commuter stop.


“They are very much committed to an alternatives analysis,” Eckhardt said. “They think a better through route would be up Dessau Road to (State Highway) 45 or, as an alternative, State Highway 130.”


Leffingwell said the initial proposal should be looked at more broadly as a study area. And what might be urban or commuter rail in one area might work better as bus rapid transit or some other mode in another part of the region.


Commissioner Will Conley put mode of transport at the forefront of his concerns. With a 30-year horizon, rail just doesn’t make sense anytime soon for portions of Hays County. On the other hand, the county clearly is ready for bus rapid transit in high-growth areas. Conley said a thorough consideration of alternatives made more sense.


Rapid bus service might also make sense on U.S. Highway 290. However, the need for rail – be it urban or commuter – was simply too far in the future. Conley supported higher-intensity options, but only as far out as the “Y” in Oak Hill, which he pegged as an area of growth that would continue to have high growth because of the availability of a ready water supply.


Eckhardt agreed an action analysis by “travel shed” was a viable option. She said she was in complete agreement with Conley’s suggestion that other transit options might deliver Hays County drivers to the “Y,” where commuters could park and get on rail to deliver them to in-town destinations.


“The land patterns don’t always work,” Eckhardt said. “The land patterns in Steiner Ranch right now are not supportive of bus rapid transit, but it’s still higher density right now than Dripping Springs.”


As options are presented to stakeholders, people need to understand there are still options and still a chance for rebuttals of presumptions, Eckhardt said. Leffingwell agreed.


“We shouldn’t be locked into certain routings just because the tracks go there,” Leffingwell said. “For some destinations, it might work. For others, some place nearby might make more sense and that’s where we need to be going. We need to be ready to discuss that kind of change.”


Questions also remain as to funding the entire plan. Some members said they didn’t want to be constrained by a price tag. Others wanted to see a full disclosure of what funds were available and what mix could be used to under projects. Leffingwell has said he would not support the urban rail proposal – which was also briefly discussed – without a significant federal commitment.


The transit working group will not meet in July and August, months when many people are on vacations.

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