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Council endorses Highland Mall-East Riverside Urban Rail route

Friday, December 13, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Austin City Council members Thursday night endorsed a plan by transportation officials to pursue an urban rail line that extends south from the Highland Mall region, through the city center, and east out East Riverside Drive. The move begins a process that could end in a multi-million dollar bond election over rail for the city in November 2014.


The vote came over vocal objections from opponents, particularly those of residents who argued that the Project Connect process resulted in the wrong routes. With their votes, Council members joined two other bodies that declined to include the Lamar corridor in the initial rail build out.


Council Member Chris Riley also called for exploration of further routes — including the Lamar/Guadalupe route —  and funding possibilities. Staff will be back by August 2014 with a report on Riley’s request. That could leave some opening for a ballot addition, should the information prove actionable.


Thursday’s discussion featured a call from some rail advocates for all interested in Austin urban rail to come together behind whichever route and mode ends up being selected. Still, that urge – firmly grounded in reminders of past rail ballot failings – did not quiet calls from backers of the Lamar route.


Former Capital Metro Board Member Lyndon Henry offered what became a familiar criticism. Noting ridership figures provided by Project Connect, Henry suggested that “you get transit trip predictions that are simply off the scale.”


“For East Riverside,” Henry continued, “their low-end prediction of daily transit ridership for that single sub-area is higher than the total daily system ridership of entire cities.”


Council action sends two separate routes forward for further vetting. The first runs south from the Highland Mall area through Austin’s central core, and south, perhaps across the river. The second would run east along East Riverside Drive. Project Connect officials were careful to point that no mode of transportation has yet been selected. Still, the widely held assumption is that rail will be the chosen mode.


Dave Sullivan, a member of the CCAG advisory group and former chair of the Planning Commission, suggested that the Lamar question could be addressed in as little as five years after the opening of a potential rail line. “What I believe this argument boils down to (is) should we go with rail on Lamar?” Sullivan posited.


Other concerns over the Lamar route held that reconfiguring the route for rail would cost the city millions in already appropriated Federal Transit Administration dollars set aside for the soon-to-open MetroRapid bus line. Earlier in the evening, Council Member Mike Martinez read from a letter Capital Metro received from the FTA. It appeared to echo that concern.


Still, Lamar proponents insisted that Project Connect officials were starting with the wrong route. Civic activist Julio Gonzalez questioned the data method employed by Project Connect to calculate population statistics. “It turns out that the demographic allocation toll has never been validated, so you are about to make a $1 billion decision on a tool (that) you do not know has any kind of predictive power,” he said.  (Gonzalez is a board member of our parent nonprofit, the Capital of Texas Media Foundation.)


Spelman summed a statement from Project Connect leader Kyle Keahy over why the entity used the metric it did. “The growth index that Julio was talking about was the CAMPO model,” Spelman said. “If we used anything other than the CAMPO model then the logical question the FTA would ask is ‘why are you using some new index, why aren’t you using the same one that you are using for making road (and other) decisions.”


Lamar advocates also suggested that their input was being ignored – and   many suggested that the decision to not include Lamar could cost the city key support in an upcoming bond election. A 2000 bond question failed amid concerns over internal bickering among rail advocates. Some concern exists that a similar fate could await the 2014 question


After further vetting and specific routing, Council members are expected to ask Austin taxpayers to approve hundreds of millions in general obligation bonds to pay for the first phase of the system. Other regional transportation entities are also expected to weigh in on the plan, including Capital Metro and the Lone Star Rail District.

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