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Spillar says federal rail money could help fund affordable housing

Monday, February 4, 2013 by Michael Kanin

The renewed push to bring an urban rail system to Austin comes with an added bonus, according to city transportation head Robert Spillar, who says federal funds for rail construction could be linked to the city’s ability to secure affordable housing.


That news came as officials with Austin‘s Department of Transportation, Capital Metro, and Lone Star Rail briefed Austin City Council members on the status of rail in central Texas last week. The scope of their presentation included the much-discussed – but yet to be approved – local rail project.


If all goes according to the current plan, officials said that trains could be rolling locally by 2021. The regional Lone Star Rail project – connecting Georgetown and San Antonio through Austin – would be running by 2025.


Rail has a troubled recent history in Austin. A full system was rejected by voters in the 2000 election. Funds were eventually secured to constructed the Capital Metro Red Line project. However, that effort brought consistent delays and resulting groans from the community.


Further city efforts to complete a comprehensive urban rail system went so far as a $1.3 billion cost estimate in 2012. Despite rumors that it would be ready in time for the 2010 and 2012 ballots, urban rail has yet to see another election.


Thursday’s briefing marked the first step in what is shaping up to be another push toward an urban rail system. The affordable housing angle adds a bit of political heft.


The November ballot failure of a $78 million affordable housing program left city staff, Council members, and advocates scrambling to find mid-term funding for such projects. (See In Fact Daily, Jan. 22, 2013). Though affordable housing funds would not come directly to the city in relation to urban rail construction, the fact that money connected to rail would be somewhat dependent on affordable housing projects could spur further local action in that direction.


Council Member Laura Morrison focused immediately on the affordability question. “My question is: What are the Feds going to require in terms of criteria and commitment to affordable housing to be able to earn those points for funding?” she asked. “I think we need to pay close attention to that and make sure that what we’re doing…will qualify.”


“The intent of the federal process is to make sure that affordable housing has good access to the major employment areas,” Spillar responded. “I think Mueller provides a lot of opportunity – in fact I understand they’re adding additional affordable housing…right now. That makes Mueller very attractive.”


Spillar also said that affordable housing associated with the East Riverside Corridor could also have an impact.


The routes included in Spillar’s presentation are familiar: Two lines that run through central Austin and the University of Texas with terminuses at the Mueller development and Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.


Still, it appears as though transportation officials will send the whole idea through another round of public input. It would then be back before Council.


Spillar and his colleagues were clear that Austin urban rail would be part of a regional approach, one that would include seamless transitions among what could be three systems.


As always, funding will be a central question. Spillar told In Fact Daily that everything is on the table. “I think the exciting thing that we’ve found…is, number one, there are sources that we’re not tapping as a region – there’s federal transit dollars, there’s other transit dollars – that we’re not probably efficiently tapping right now.”


Spillar noted that a more clear idea about funding strategies for regional rail ideas should begin to emerge at the Feb. 28 meeting of CAMPO’s Transit Working Group. “I think that that’s when you’ll start to hear real funding ideas for how to do this.”

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