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Arguments begin over Highland-East Riverside route for Urban Rail

Monday, November 18, 2013 by Andy Sevilla

The latest urban rail suggestion for the city would link north central Austin, in the Highland Mall area, to the downtown and stretch the same transit service to the East Riverside corridor.


According to Project Connect representatives, that route would best serve future transportation needs in the area. However, critics of Project Connect say the recommendation does not break new ground but serves the needs of constituencies other than commuters.


Project Connect, comprised of representatives from the City of Austin, Capital Metro and Lone Star Rail, was formed two years ago to take a fresh look at transit possibilities in Central Texas. The group recommended Friday to move forward with high-capacity transit connecting the city’s central core –Downtown, the Capitol Complex and the University of Texas – to the Highland Mall corridor to the north and the East Riverside corridor.


“The message we heard from everyone is that (high-capacity transit) needs to be quick,” Project Connect team lead Kyle Keahey told a packed room Friday. “It needs to be not a lot of station stops, so that we can get a faster service. It needs to be an effective alternative to being stuck in congestion.”


However, Mike Dahmus, a former member of the Urban Transportation Commission and a supporter of Austinites for Urban Rail Action, said the corridor chosen by Project Connect, is the wrong one.


“Why aren’t we doing what most other successful cities do, which is look at where there’s a ton of residential density and a ton of employment density that currently exists?” Dahmus said, adding that when Project Connect began its studies, “ever since, it’s been clear to me that the fix was in. Rather than using this process to decide what the best corridor was, this process was used to justify the corridor that they wanted to do.”


The Project Connect team divided Austin’s Central Corridor – loosely bounded by RM 2222 to the north, Oltorf to the south, Springdale/Grover to the east and MoPac to the west – into 10 sub-corridors, one of which was to emerge as the top prospect for the region’s next high-capacity transit investment.


Attendees of three public meetings Project Connect held earlier this month seemed to prefer the Lamar corridor – which is expected to host Austin’s highest future employment density – as the priority sub-corridor that should be connected to the core, according to the survey results.


Project Connect, however, recommended advancing the Highland corridor and the East Riverside corridor as top priority because the data consistently floated those two corridors to the top based on congestion, growth and other factors, Keahey told the Central Corridor Advisory Group, a volunteer committee tasked with prioritizing and defining a preferred alignment for high-capacity transit.


“This doesn’t mean that some of these sub-corridors (West Austin, MoPac, Lamar, Mueller, MLK, East Austin, South Congress and South Lamar) aren’t worthy of high capacity transit investment,” Keahey said. “All we’re trying to do is identify the best sub-corridor for high capacity transit investment.”


And high-ranking officials seem to agree.


“This recommendation of both is a very good recommendation,” Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who chairs the advisory group said. “The purpose of the sub-corridor is to direct the alignment of the central core, and both of these are compatible with the same potential alignment. So we could go ahead with both right now, and when we get further down the line it might be that we have one or the other, or both” depending on finances.


“I’m very supportive of this approach, because it gets us where we need to be in the next step, and both alignments are compatible with that potential step,” Leffingwell said.


Dahmus, however, says the Lamar and Guadalupe corridor is the logical place for urban rail to start.


“They should put rail on Lamar and Guadalupe, which is what any sane city would do,” he said. “Every other city that has succeeded with rail does one very simple thing, for the first line they say the most important thing is that the first line is that it has a ton of people on it. Because if you don’t do that, you don’t get to make a second line. But we already know that there’s a ton of people on Lamar and Guadalupe going downtown . . . we already know because we have the bus figures to support it.”


Capital Metro is in the process of rolling out a bus-rapid transit service route from North Lamar to South Congress in the first-quarter of 2014, and a second one from Burnet Road to South Lamar in the summer, though Project Connect staffers said those projects were not taken into account in identifying a priority sub-corridor.


The Lamar sub-corridor ranked third on Project Connect’s priority list, with the Mueller sub-corridor slightly behind. The group said that despite not making it in Friday’s recommendation, both alignments should be revisited for future rail possibilities.


The advisory committee will decide Dec. 6 whether to move forward with Project Connect’s recommendation or advance a different sub-corridor. From now until the advisory group’s final decision, the public is invited to submit comments on the proposed project, and a “community conversation” is planned on Nov. 26 from 7-9 p.m. The community conversation will feature a dial-out to 50,000 Austin residents, as well as in-person and online participation. 


Once the advisory group decides on an alignment, the Project Connect team will begin work on a potential route, stations, financing and the governance structure. The group will also consider non-rail options, like bus and street cars, though those alternatives are unlikely to move forward. 


Austin City Council members are expected to take the matter up for a vote next year and decide by August what a city bond election to fund the project could look like.

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