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Chasing Rail

City ponders how to pay for urban rail

By Lee Nichols, Fri., June 17, 2011

When we last left the urban rail discussion (see "Why Rail?" April 8), Mayor Lee Leffingwell had a list of 30 questions he wanted answered before moving forward with the major transportation project. City Council heard a presentation from the city's Transportation Department Tuesday that really clarified only one thing: that questions still remain. One question looms over all others: how to pay for it. City staff outlined possible sources of money from the federal government's New Starts Project Planning and Development program, and said that while Austin is a good candidate for such funding due to stable employment centers such as UT, the Capitol, and our vibrant Downtown, money couldn't be guaranteed. However, Leffingwell said the project won't work without it: "[General obligation] bonds alone are not going to fund this project," he said, concluding that the city would need a 50-50 match. Also, he said, it's not enough to simply build the thing – after that, where does the operational money come from? "We have to identify a funding stream." Transporta­tion Director Rob Spillar presented multiple scenarios regarding which phase to build first – some going north to Mueller or the Han­cock Center, others crossing the river and going to River­side. Council members Mike Martinez and Bill Spelman both advocated crossing the river first, because of the dense population of potential riders already living on Riverside, but how to cross is still uncertain – and the most costly segment. "I know it's expensive," Martinez said, "and we may not do that."

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