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City Council gets review of progress on Urban Rail Program

Thursday, October 17, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Austin City Council members received a set of updated Urban Rail statistics Tuesday. The presentation offered a glimpse at the ongoing process as staff and Mayor Lee Leffingwell did their level best to drive home the point that a route for the project — still subject to voter approval via a probable 2014 bond election — had not been selected.


Leffingwell took pains before the city’s Urban Rail Program Lead Kyle Keahey began his presentation to make that point.


Still, the data offered by staff illustrated at least some of the basic thinking behind how decision makers will ultimately settle on a route proposal. Keahey framed the statistical discussion in terms of 10 sub-corridors. These regions each radiate out from the core of the city – defined, for the purposes of the discussion, as the area that includes Downtown, the University of Texas, and the State Capital complex.


The 10 sub-corridors in question are, South Lamar, South Congress, MLK, Lamar, East Riverside, East Austin, Mueller, Highland, MoPac, and West Austin, with some overlap between the regions. The city’s core is included in each segment.


Keahey told Council members that each corridor would be examined via “graphic representations of data.” He gave population density, employment density, and congestion as examples.


The presentation suggested that shifts in each of those categories could create a much different picture for 2010 maps and projected 2030 maps. Keahey told Council members that population density would be highest in the Lamar, Highland, and East Riverside regions in 2010 but that data shows a move out of the Lamar region and into East Austin in time for 2030.


According to Keahey’s figures, a similar shift would occur in employment density. There, the MoPac, Lamar, and Highland regions hold the highest end of that figure in 2010. By 2030, however, Keahey argued that employment density would shift out of MoPac and into the South Congress subcorridor.


Congestion, he argued, is highest in the West Austin, South Lamar, and South Congress sub-corridors in 2010. By 2035, holds Keahey, that would shift out of the South Lamar region and into the Highland area.


Rail advocate and Urban Transportation Commissioner Jace Deloney told In Fact Daily that he is generally pleased with the Project Connect efforts to date. “I am truly optimistic that the Project Connect Central Corridor Study will come up with a good decision,” he said via email. 


However, Deloney harbored some concerns about the process. He questioned the use of 2030 projections in its data evaluation. “Growth projections are notoriously inaccurate. Because of this, the (Federal Transit Administration) has begin placing more emphasis on present-day data when evaluating proposed transit projects,” he wrote.


He continued on to note that, “Since we’re likely to highly depend on federal funding for this project, it makes sense that our methodology would closely match FTA methodology.”


Staff Tuesday told Council members that roughly half of the $4 billion projected cost of the system would come from alternate funding sources.


Deloney called confirmation of the fact that I-35 congestion data is included in staff’s work related to the Highland sub-corridor – from a question brought forward by Council Member Chris Riley – a “revelation.”


“This is obviously a flawed approach, since I-35 congestion in Central North Austin (within the Highland sub-corridor boundary) is caused primarily from those North of 183,” he wrote. “Council Member Riley rightly concluded that a ‘transit investment through the Highland sub-corridor may not necessarily relieve congestion on I-35.’”


Deloney also cautioned against using “Austin’s next transit investment primarily as an economic development tool.” He continued: “Transit investments should first and foremost improve mobility and access by making more places reachable in a given amount of time. The biggest problem facing Austin is not economic development, it is mobility.”

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