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Under fire, Council approves $1 billion Strategic Mobility Plan

Friday, June 27, 2014 by Michael Kanin

Austin City Council members unanimously approved what city staff is calling the Strategic Mobility Plan Thursday. The plan, which contains roughly $1 billion in various transportation projects, includes $600 million for a potential urban rail line.


The approval of the plan marks a direct step toward what is shaping up to be a massive November Transportation Bond question. Though the costs associated with the $1 billion in new debt would be phased in over a period of six or seven years, the ultimate price would cost taxpayers an additional 6.25 cents per $100 in property valuation on their annual property tax bills.


Despite a clear statement from Mayor Lee Leffingwell indicating his feeling that the passage of the mobility plan was a momentous occasion, activists with a host of groups opposed to the current version of the rail plan were not sold. They continued to argue against the rail plan, based on their concerns on what they consider a lack of data associated with the proposed routing and ridership numbers.


For example, Realtor Frank Harren suggested that the costs of the rail plan would be roughly $175,000 per rider. Leffingwell called project manager Kyle Keahey up to refute those numbers. Though Keahey didn’t show any direct specifics, he suggested that Harren’s math used the wrong formula to arrive at his figure – and an accompanying assertion that the new Austin system would be the second most expensive in the country.


Instead, Keahey put up a familiar series of numbers, one that puts the costs of Austin’s potential system at roughly $118 million per mile of track. That figure, argued Keahey, puts the new line right in the middle in terms of recent similar projects, but still in the ballpark with regard to overall cost. (Under Keahey’s argument, the most expensive average cost per mile is roughly $126 million.)


Other metrics came under fire. These included questions over the potential costs of operations and maintenance of the rail line. Keahey was also unable to present detailed figures to answer those questions. Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole then noted that the Council’s Audit and Finance Committee would hold a special meeting to discuss those issues.


In addition to criticism of the data involved, representatives with AURA, a group that started as a rail advocacy project but has since morphed to cover more topics – and oppose the rail line, repeatedly noted that they felt deprived of a voice as part of the process. They promised to take their concerns over what they portrayed as a lack of input to the Federal Transit Authority, a move clearly implied as a threat to affect the city’s drive for federal rail dollars.


Austin is relying on a 50 percent matching federal grant to complete the initial phase of the proposed urban rail project. Leffingwell has said that the rail line would not be built if Austin does not get the federal money.

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