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Central Corridor Group endorses Project Connect plan for urban rail

Monday, June 16, 2014 by Jenny Blair

Urban rail in Austin rolled closer to reality Friday. By a 13-1 vote, the Central Corridor Advisory Group put its stamp of approval on Project Connect’s Locally Preferred Alternative, or LPA, for Austin’s future transportation project.


The Locally Preferred Alternative describes an urban rail line that would run through the East Riverside corridor, cross a new bridge on Lady Bird Lake, proceed north along Trinity Street, go through the University of Texas and future Dell Medical School campuses, tunnel under Hancock Center, and terminate at ACC Highland. It would be the first among other planned urban rail routes.


“This, in effect, becomes a stake in the ground for us to be able to grow from,” said project leader Kyle Keahey.


In the meantime, two park-and-ride lots at Hancock and Highland would serve southbound commuters.


Some transit activists have argued in favor of sending transit up the Guadalupe Street/North Lamar Street corridor, in part because it is far more heavily traveled than Highland.


However, Keahey told the advisory group the same thing he has been saying for months: that this preferred route stands the best chance of winning funds from the Federal Transit Administration.


Those funds are essential for Project Connect, whose price tag is $1.38 billion in 2020 dollars, or $1.13 billion in 2014 dollars. (See Austin Monitor, May 2) A proposed bond vote this fall would raise half that amount from area taxpayers.


Supporters say the Highland corridor is poised for strong population and jobs growth. They argue that building along busy Guadalupe/Lamar would remove two key traffic lanes and jeopardize future federal funding, since the federal agency has already kicked in funds for the MetroRapid bus route there and would not want to pay for replacement projects while those buses still have useful life.


The CCAG heard supportive testimony from the Austin Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Austin Alliance, the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association and the Alliance for Public Transportation.


Downtown Alliance board chair Larry Graham said that the numbers of downtown jobs and residents will climb, especially in light of the many startup companies expected to cluster around the medical school, potential redevelopment around the Capitol, growth of UT’s eastern campus, and redevelopment at Highland.


The Chamber of Commerce’s Beth Ann Ray said its transportation committee had selected the current plan, though its board has not expressed a formal position. She said Chamber representatives had recently talked in Washington, D.C., with federal transportation representatives who were “pleasantly surprised and excited to hear from our leadership about how excited we are” at the plan.


Representatives of Austin Urban Rail Action and Austin Rail Now urged a no vote.


“This is not about sour grapes,” said AURA’s Marcus Denton. “We really, really wanted something that we could endorse.”


However, Denton said, AURA has not received satisfactory answers to its questions about the methods and “very rosy” growth projections on which Project Connect is based.


“This (LPA) poses a long-term barrier to an efficient, comprehensive transportation system in Austin,” Denton said. “It’s going to drain very necessary funds from our bus service.… (And) drain the political capital that we’re going to need for future expansion.”


Lyndon Henry of Austin Rail Now told the CCAG that if the route does go through UT’s East Campus, the university ought to pony up.


“There’s a reverse Robin Hood aspect to this,” Henry said.


Montgomery, who is an AURA activist, said she would vote no “with a heavy heart. Without seeing Project Connect’s methods to estimate ridership, she said, it would be hard to ensure future funding.


“This plan both costs a lot and is risky,” Montgomery said. “If it were one or the other, I think we could do it.”


CCAG’s Dave Sullivan suggested an amendment that, given voters’ cost concerns, the pro-LPA resolution include language about monitoring cost and development data as each segment is built. After some haggling about wording, Mayor Lee Leffingwell agreed.


Leffingwell called the plan a once-in-a-decade opportunity and warned that if it fails at the ballot, “the consequences of that would be dire, to say the least.”


“I hope we’re able to convince both the Council and the community that we need to do this,” Leffingwell said.


The urban-rail proposal will next make its way to a joint meeting of the Capital Metro Board of Directors and the Austin City Council Tuesday. Cap Metro will decide June 23 whether to proceed and the City Council will decide June 26. On Aug. 7, the City Council will decide whether to put the matter to a fall bond election.

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