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Proposal explores Urban Rail funding options through TOD zones

Wednesday, October 2, 2013 by Michael Kanin

An item proposed by Council Members Mike Martinez and Chris Riley that, in part, creates a restricted fund to draw development-based dollars from construction around rail stations drew some concern from Council Member Laura Morrison Tuesday. If approved, the Martinez and Riley hope that the fund, accessible to Capital Metro, would help pay for a potential urban rail project for the city.


At Tuesday’s Council work session, Morrison wondered whether the proposal would expand the city’s Transit Oriented Development Zones to extend value capture to a potential urban rail project. “It’s suggesting that we might do value capture in our current (Transit Oriented Development zones), even though those aren’t necessarily our urban rail stops,” she said


Riley assured Morrison that the item would kick off nothing more than a study of urban rail funding options. “The resolution doesn’t purport to dictate any particular outcomes, or any particular events,” he offered. “It simply asks staff to take a look at the possibilities and see what would make the most sense.”


Tuesday also found Morrison citing criteria the currently shuttered federal government had issued to highlight the emphasis it is now placing on affordability and transportation. She listed from a presentation slide” “Emphasis on affordable housing; recognize that maintaining affordable housing near transit creates more inclusive communities and helps to insure that more lower income families have regular access to transit; recognize that high-quality transit investments can lead to gentrification over time, and affordable housing is a way to mitigate those effects…;(and) it says explicitly (that we should) consider the presence of legally-binding affordable housing as indicative of a community’s readiness for new transit investment.”


Morrison urged Austin Transportation Department officials to consider those items as they route what is shaping up to be an urban rail plan for the 2014 ballot. She has been pushing hard on transportation officials and her colleagues to consider affordability as they move forward with a potential urban rail project.


Robert Spillar, head of the Transportation Department, told Council members that he would indeed take the information into account, noting that the Mueller Development included at least some of what the feds are looking for.


“There’s a variety of incentives (to get federal dollars) and we already have tools; it’s just thinking about how to reuse those tools,” Spillar said.


Spillar also told Council members that he and his team would return sometime in October with more information on the urban rail system. (This story originally said he might have a potential route for the rail, but that was an error.) 


Spillar, Council members, and urban rail advocates have a tough road ahead. In addition to competition over differences in route placement, they will have to overcome considerable delays in a comprehensive urban rail proposal, as well as the specter of failure that still hangs around the 2000 rail vote.


Project Connect, a combined City of Austin/Capital Metro project with Council support, has presented rail advocates with a discussion forum in recent months. The body includes Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Council Member Bill Spelman, Capital Metro Vice Chair John Langmore, and a host of other notable local figures.

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