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View of the Drag

Urban Transportation Commission talks rail, sidewalks, bond dismay

Thursday, August 11, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

Tuesday’s Urban Transportation Commission meeting provided a stark counterpoint to Mayor Steve Adler’s claim that he has broad community consensus behind his $720 million transportation bond proposal.

Members aired frustrations about the process of the proposal’s development, heard from advocates seeking far more money than is planned for sidewalk infrastructure and were divided evenly on a recommendation to City Council to put a separate light rail bond package on November’s ballot.

The charge against the light rail effort was led by Commissioner Cynthia Weatherby, who delivered a frontal assault on the plan cooked up by the grassroots Central Austin Community Development Corporation. That proposal envisions a 5.2-mile starter segment of rail down the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor at a cost of $400 million.

“I’m personally convinced that this proposal is very premature,” said Weatherby, whose resume includes two separate stints at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. “And with the background that I have in transportation, specifically rail transit planning, I don’t think it’s based on reality. I have zero faith in the cost estimates.”

Weatherby said she reached out to the CACDC’s Scott Morris to learn more details about the proposal, “and that even convinced me more that it’s not based on reality.”

On Wednesday, Morris told the Austin Monitor that his group came by its estimate of $75 million per mile by analyzing 16 existing light rail systems across the country. He added, “In June, we requested (Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority) staff’s input on our proposal, including the cost estimate, and the reaction was generally favorable.”

On Wednesday, Capital Metro spokeswoman Mariette Hummel told the Monitor that transit agency staff have had numerous meetings with Morris and his team. “However, we did not discuss their capital cost estimates in any detail,” she said, “and therefore stating that our reaction to that specific element of the proposal was ‘generally favorable’ would be an exaggeration.”

Hummel did add that analysis of the cost of systems around the country is an acceptable starting point, “and it is a reasonable ‘rule of thumb,’” she concluded.

Regardless of the cost, Weatherby found another reason to oppose the light rail proposal on Tuesday night. “I don’t have any preconceived notion about where it should go, but I don’t think it’s necessarily this corridor,” she said, referring to the proposed alignment between downtown’s Republic Square Park and Crestview Station.

Commissioner Mario Champion disputed Weatherby’s assertion that the proposal is “premature.” He said that the minimal operating segment envisioned by the CACDC overlaps the same route that narrowly lost in the 2000 election, even after winning preliminary approval from the Federal Transit Administration.

Champion also noted that participants in the public-input process building up to Project Connect’s 2014 urban rail proposal consistently gave high preference to the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Despite that route’s popularity, Project Connect eventually chose to connect East Riverside Drive to Highland Mall via the east side of downtown and Airport Boulevard.

Commissioner J.D. Gins, the sponsor of the proposal to recommend a separate light rail referendum, said he regretted that neither Morris nor other members of the CACDC and its associated political action committee, Our Rail, were present to defend their plan. He also expressed concern that the reboot of Project Connect during its upcoming Central Corridor study could deliver similar results to 2014.

“If we go through the process again, and Cap Metro does the same thing again and recommends a different corridor other than this, and this question was never fully … put to the citizens, then I think the same advocates and coalitions that tore down the last Cap Metro plan are going to be pretty motivated to tear down the next Cap Metro plan,” Gins said.

Gins withdrew his recommendation when the commission deadlocked on it with a 5-5 vote, with Weatherby and commissioners Celso Baez III, Dan Calistrat, Chris Hosek and Michael Wilfley in opposition. Chair D’Ann Johnson was absent. The body voted 10-0 to support Weatherby’s alternative proposal to recommend that Council work toward a goal of putting together a new light rail proposal by 2018.

Despite his support, Gins fretted about a potentially lost opportunity. “The Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton election in Austin is going to be a rout, and progressive voters are going to be turning out in huge numbers,” he said. “I think we should be pushing big transit planning while the electorate is the most progressive.”

The commission also voted 9-1 to endorse a recommendation passed by the Pedestrian Advisory Council in June July that calls on Council to dramatically increase the proposed bond’s funding for sidewalks. Hosek was the lone nay.

The current plan calls for $27.5 million to fund the Sidewalk Master Plan and $27.5 million for Safe Routes to Schools investments. The Pedestrian Advisory Council’s recommendation calls for diverting the bond’s highway money to provide $100 million for the Sidewalk Master Plan projects and an additional $20 million for other pedestrian infrastructure investments.

Tom Wald of Walk Austin told the commission that he can’t support Adler’s plan in its current state. He also pointed out that Council approved the bond package just before taking its annual July hiatus.

“You try to get ahold of City Council members in mid-July,” Wald said. “There has not been a lot of dialogue between City Council members and the public on this.”

Gins echoed that concern. “I’m tremendously surprised that this body never got a briefing on what’s in the $720 million (package),” he said.

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