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CAMPO group wants urban rail issue placed on November 2014 ballots

Thursday, April 25, 2013 by Ramon Ramirez

As part of a wider discussion about a pending interlocal rail agreement, Council members received an urban rail update during their Tuesday work session. There, Mayor Lee Leffingwell detailed imminent plans from CAMPO’s Transit Working Group, which he chairs.

“Informally at the (Transit Working Group) meeting, we’ve discussed a target date of Feb. 15 next year,” Leffingwell said of plans to introduce for a proposition that could be discussed in public.

Council members are set this morning to approve an agreement among the city, the Lone Star Rail District, and Capital Metro that aims to coordinate rail planning throughout Central Texas.

CAMPO’s Transit Working Group is currently developing two major efforts. Leffingwell says they aim to iron out these out “hopefully by the end of the summer.”

Of these, Leffingwell said that priority one is Project Connect’s organizational structure chart. After that, the group would work on solidifying funding.

Two weeks ago, the organization announced that HNTB Corp. vice president and transit expert Kyle Keahey would serve as the region’s urban rail lead – effectively the organization’s manager of that effort.

According to Leffingwell, the working group has also discussed one version of a financial plan. “(It’s) a plan that finances about 40 percent of the entire system, not only phase one but one that goes forward until 2024, I believe,” Leffingwell said.

City transportation head Rob Spillar told Council members that Project Connect remains a system-wide plan that relies on individual jurisdictions to make “specific funding decisions when it goes for specific investments.” Lone Star Rail, the proposed passenger rail initiative between Georgetown and San Antonio, would then be responsible for putting together the specific funding packages within its counties by the time it’s scheduled to open for business in 2025.

“It’s a pay-to-play system,” Leffingwell said, “To be a part of it you need to have some financial interest in it.”

Leffingwell has made no secret his desire to consummate the long-awaited advent of Austin urban rail by the end of his Mayoral term in 2015.

As part of Tuesday’s discussion, Council Member Chris Riley raised the specter of routing. “I am still hearing some concern that this (interlocal agreement) – as proposed – would lock the effort into one very specific alignment and would preclude consideration of alternative alignments that might have some foundation in past years’ planning,” he said.

Some rail advocates have questioned whether a widely touted route that would run from the Mueller development, through the University of Texas campus, and proceed downtown is the best option. These advocates have organized into a group calling itself Austinites for Urban Rail Action, and have pitched a route that would instead run down Guadalupe Street and Lamar Boulevard.

Leffingwell clarified that the city would not be locked in to a route by the agreement, adding that the Council is still a ways from developing the necessary “jurisdictional considerations” for proposing routes. Leffingwell noted that ridership studies will be conducted, and the transit working group will have a “public process” that involves input from the Austin community.

“The only sort of hard and fast commitment that we’ve made for a phase one of urban rail would be that it serve the University of Texas, Capitol Complex, and the downtown area,” Leffingwell said.

Austin’s flirtations with rail systems have been a mixed bag. An initiative that would have brought a system to the city failed during the 2000 election, the Capital Metro Red Line project was mired with delays, and recent proposals were not realized in time for the 2010 and 2012 ballots.

Council Member Bill Spelman stressed the need for more regular staff reports on progress. “If we’re talking about going to a vote of the public sometime in 2014 we’re going to be in for a pretty quick timeline,” said Spelman, “I’d like that the manager of the program comes back to the council every couple of months and lets us know ‘Here’s where we are, here’s what needs to be done and here’s what it is that the Council can do to help move this thing forward.’”

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