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Spelman: plan for Lamar rail after Highland-Riverside is done

Monday, December 9, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

Project Connect’s Central Corridor Advisory Group voted Friday to endorse the Highland-East Riverside sub-corridor as the first route for Austin’s proposed Urban Rail line. The City Council is poised to vote on the matter this Thursday.


But the Highland route, which basically runs from Highland Mall along Airport Boulevard and Red River Street through the downtown core and over to East Riverside Drive, did not win universal applause. Some transit activists have argued strenuously for the initial rail line to run along Lamar Boulevard. But Capital Metro is poised to begin federally-funded Bus Rapid Transit service on the Lamar route beginning in January. The agency received $38 million for the bus service, which includes North Lamar as well as Guadalupe and South Congress.


Council Member Bill Spelman told In Fact Daily that on a recent trip to Washington, D.C., he spoke with a Federal Transit Administration official and asked her whether, hypothetically, money could be transitioned to another corridor to make way for rail.


“I’m paraphrasing, but the gist of her response was not just ‘no,’ but ‘hell no’,” said Spelman.


Spelman said that while the duration of the rapid transit run could be discussed, money taken to build it had to be used for the originally designated corridor; any change would be considered a new proposal and re-evaluated as such, after the original money was given back.


Spelman says that the discussion about routes so far has been “largely theoretical.” And, with rapid transit ready to begin in the next couple of months, it is time for a more practical discussion.


“I think the way to play this is to say we are going to go up Airport Boulevard and do the east route, not the west route, for the first phase. We go to East Riverside, and across the river, and everything else we agreed on, but we set ourselves up for the next phase of replacing Bus Rapid Transit with the train at the earliest reasonable moment,” said Spelman. “Which might be 2025, 2027, something like that.”


In the meantime, explains Spelman, the city can set up studies and lay the planning groundwork so that Austin can “hit the ground running when the next phase comes on line.”


“But that next phase is going to be the next one. Not the first one,” said Spelman.


Though the bond that will be put before voters (most likely in 2014) will be for that first phase of building, Spelman suggests that that they seize the opportunity to also clarify the city’s plans for other phases in the future.


“It seems to me that I don’t want to give the money back, and Capital Metro doesn’t want to give the money back. BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) is going to move a whole lot of people – not just on the North Lamar corridor, but further north and a lot of people further south,” said Spelman.


He went on to explain that, given the fact that a strong case could be made for trains in either corridor, the combination of moving people through BRT and maintaining credibility with the Federal Transit Authority made Highland/ Airport a much better choice. It also could make needed federal dollars more likely for a desperately-needed train system.


And says Spelman, though “almost everyone agrees a train would provide better service than Bus Rapid Transit,” once the Lamar corridor has been established through BRT, the conversation about transitioning that corridor to rail could begin.


“We are going to have seven years of experience with that BRT before the train comes even on line at all. If we stop the BRT that’s seven years of not moving people in that corridor, because we are building a train instead,” said Spelman.

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