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Leffingwell, Spelman offer different views of city’s rail future

Monday, March 3, 2014 by Michael Kanin

With no firm number yet attached to a potential November 2014 City of Austin transportation bond, two Austin City Council members presented vastly differing visions last week of what it might eventually cost. Meanwhile, the Council members revealed further planning details about what a train system might look like in terms of required infrastructure investments.


Their statements came in response to a figure presented by City of Austin staff at the latest meeting of Council’s Audit and Finance Committee. There, officials with Austin’s finance department employed a ballpark figure of $275 million for a potential 2014 rail bond question. That number would, in theory, be coupled with an additional $275 million in matching federal funds to bring a first investment in rail to roughly $550 million.


City spokesman Kyle Carvell was careful to note that the figure used by staff in the Audit and Finance committee meeting dates back at least as far as 2012, and is not anything more than a working estimate.


Still, Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell told the Austin Monitor that the $275 million amount would be enough to get the job done – so long as it came with federal matching funds. “I think somewhere in the neighborhood of about $600 million is about where we are going to land – that’s kind of what’s always been talked about,” he said. “Unless it changes.”


Council Member Bill Spelman, however, was skeptical of the $275 million number. “I’m not sure what we can buy for $275 million even if we get a match from the federal government,” Spelman told the Monitor.


Spelman also noted that, even if that were the price, Austinites might want something more. “I think a case could be made that a more expensive system would provide so much better value for the public that we ought to consider it, so I wouldn’t want our transportation planners to feel that they needed to hit that particular mark.”


Meanwhile, both Spelman and Leffingwell endorsed the use of some form of underground conduit for the potential new transit program. “I would like for all of this to be underground as much as we can possibly afford it and whenever it is practical,” said Leffingwell. “Our approach in the Central Corridor Advisory Group is to have what they refer to as a dedicated right of way for the train – it could still be a bus, but I don’t think it’s going to be a bus – that would be completely separate as much as possible. Some of it might be overhead, for example if we go to Highland Mall via…the I-35 right of way, that would be elevated there.”


Leffingwell also suggested that a new train would have to go underground as it crosses the path of Capital Metro’s existing Red Line. It would also, he said, run underwater. “Not necessarily a tunnel, but one of these things where you lay the structure – cut a groove in the river bed.”


Spelman picked up on that notion. He told the Monitor that he believes, at least “until further notice,” that a subway “might provide much better service to the public than an on-street system—at least for some part of (the system).”


That statement was coupled with Spelman’s suggestion that $275 million may not be enough to cover the costs of the new system. “We have two issues here, one of them is that we need to get over the river,” he continued. “A bridge is going to be difficult partly because there is no easy place to get over the river. That’s a good argument for a tunnel to being with—a tunnel or two buried underneath the surface, it’s almost the same thing.”


Spelman description of a “tunnel…buried underneath the surface” runs contrary to the Mayor’s suggestion that planners could work out a conduit rested in a groove, not completely under earth. In the Mayor’s suggested version, the line might run shallow enough to prevent an overly steep rise, and a train could surface earlier. Spelman’s description would put a potential incline surfacing somewhere in the neighborhood of fourth street downtown—at which point he suggests that the city might as well take the project underground.


Leffingwell also pointed out that any tax increase that comes with the figure would not immediately impact Austinites. He explained that the tax impact would register gradually, over a period of years. As such, any tax increase could be offset by an increase of the city’s existing bonding capacity as Austin retires other bonds. That formula could leave Austinites paying less than the straight calculation of one penny per every $100 million often employed by finance staff.


“You can’t just say boom. It’s going to increase your taxes 2.75 (cents),” Leffingwell said of the $275 million figure.


Spelman and Leffingwell both serve on Project Connect’s Central Corridor Advisory Group, the entity charged with examining and offering initial endorsements of new planning for what could turn into a 2014 November bond question.


This all comes as Statesman transportation reporter Ben Wear reported Friday on an eight-month old poll that – despite  its age – showed “a narrow majority said they would oppose rail if it meant paying approximately $180 a year more in property taxes.”

“Specifically,” Wear continued, “43 percent said they would support a tax increase of 50 cents a day “to have more transit options” such as those being suggested in a joint city of Austin-Capital Metro planning effort called Project Connect.

“Fifty-one percent said no to that question, an eight-point margin.” Even though only City of Austin voters would be voting on such a measure, the poll, according to Wear, was conducted among “Central Texas voters.” It had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

Later, Wear – now posting on Twitter –  continued to bang the drum. “Austin Chamber has done a rail poll in recent weeks. Officials say info is private and won’t be shared w/media or the public. Hmmm…,” he wrote.

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