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Capital Metro endorses Highland-East Riverside rail alignment

Thursday, January 30, 2014 by Jimmy Maas

The Capital Metro board officially backed the first phase planned by Project Connect Wednesday. The board voted 7-0 on the resolution with Frank Fernandez off the dais. The plan is the same one Project Connect finalized late last year that would connect the Highland Mall area of Austin with downtown and East Riverside by rail.


Project Connect’s Kyle Keahey laid out the group’s case for the decision to back the Highland-East Riverside route for the board.


“As we looked at the data through six different lenses, we started to see a separation of the data,” Keahey told the board. “It’s not so much winners and losers, as much it is which one of these sub-corridors starting to emerge as a strong candidate for funding, a strong candidate for competition for the FTA (Federal Transit Authority) dollars.”


“East Riverside floated to the top on every perspective that we looked at, explained Keahey. “We felt very strong about the East Riverside corridor being that next effort. But because of the consistency of Highland being at the top and also because of the complimentary nature of these, one being on the north, the other being on the south, we made the recommendation to stretch our goal a little bit more, to identify a project that runs from Highland corridor down through the core and out through the Riverside corridor.”


The Project Connect plan isn’t without controversy. Advocates for a rail path down North Lamar have been quite vocal against the current plan and Wednesday was no exception.


“The recommendation before you today does not reflect the input of those most impacted by the planning,” said Scott Morris of Central Austin Community Development Corporation to the board. “Approval of the Highland sub-corridor designation has terminated rail planning for Guadalupe-Lamar and may end its future prospects.”


“It’s important to remember we’re a victim of our own success,” said Dave Dobbs, publisher of Light Rail Now, “We need to take advantage of growth and go where we made our investments. We made our investments in the north, north central and northwest area.”


“It’s not one single factor that can tell you the answer,” said Keahey.  “It’s not just population. It’s not just economic development. It’s about all of these factors coming together.”


And while Project Connect hasn’t wavered in its recommendation for Highland-East Riverside, one board member did offer some pointers on how Keahey might win over more folks to support it.


“Meeting with the public, beginning with the February 8th meeting, you may want to talk a little more about what’s in the future for Lamar,” warned board member Beverly Silas. “Because there were concerns over the selection of Highland over Lamar and they weren’t grasping that very well. There were only three or four of them, but the three or four that were there were very vocal and represented a larger part of the community that lives in that area. So maybe if you just highlighted what’s coming for Lamar and that Lamar has just not been swept aside.”


Ballot language will have to be set for Project Connect’s rail plan this summer ahead of the November election. If voters approve the project, you might be able to ride the Highland-East Riverside line as soon as 2021, according to Keahey and the FTA website.

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