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Can Project Connect Connect?

Advisory group receives preferred corridor recommendation

By Michael King, Fri., May 9, 2014

Initial route recommendation by Project Connect to CCAG
Initial route recommendation by Project Connect to CCAG
Map Provided by Project Connect

On Friday, May 2, the Project Connect team presented its Locally Preferred Alternative recommendation for urban rail to Mayor Lee Leffingwell's Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG). It would run from Highland on the north to Riverside/Grove on the south, features a new bridge over Lady Bird Lake, and possibly a tunnel at Hancock. Total price tag: $1.38 billion.

As the team's press release summarized, the urban rail line – recommended over Bus Rapid Transit as both carrying greater capacity and allowing more flexibility – would provide transit for "the current and future residents along East Riverside Drive as well as the [Austin Community College] Highland redevelopment area to major destinations such as Austin's growing downtown area, the State Capitol Complex, Lady Bird Lake, the Convention Center, the University of Texas campus, public venues and stadium, the future Dell Medical School and Hancock Center." According to the release, "The recommended project includes construction of a new, signature bridge over Lady Bird Lake that would accommodate urban rail and could also include bicycle and pedestrian pathways."

On May 16, the Project Connect team will present funding and governance options to CCAG – at this stage, officials are hoping to supplement local bond funding with federal grants, and the manager of the rail line is expected to be Capital Metro. The team will also recommend "phasing options" – that is, the preferred construction order of the sections of the overall rail project. Said team leader Kyle Keahey, "The initial urban rail project is something that can meet today's needs and be expanded to meet the area's growing needs for mobility as growth continues to occur, creating the backbone for a system of mobility within the city's central core."

While the funding possibilities are not yet confirmed, Leffingwell told Ben Wear of the Statesman Saturday that he expected the initial project would be reduced to about $1 billion, with half of that to be funded by bonds and half by federal underwriting. There remain several steps to the process before it gets to that stage, including the formal CCAG recommendations, briefings to City Council and the Capital Metro board, and a planned joint meeting of Council and Capital Metro in late June to consider the options. "The recommended project," says the team, "would continue to be designed and reviewed through the National Environmental Policy Act environmental study process."

Initial reaction to the proposal by local transit advocates was mixed. Over the weekend, Lonny Stern of the Alliance for Public Transportation posted a lengthy analysis of the team's proposal, suggesting that most local media – settling on the total price tag for their headlines – had "buried the lede." Stern continued: "The real news from CCAG's May 2 report is that the team selected an alignment from Grove Boulevard to Highland Mall that includes:

1) a new bridge over Lady Bird Lake,

2) a tunnel at the Hancock Center, and

3) a price tag of $1.38 billion,

4) to be funded 50% by federal funds and 50% by a November bond election. Of particular interest is the below-the-fold accounting of economic impact due to building urban rail (page 63):

$31.6-$44.4 million in property tax revenue;

$5.9-$10.8 million in sales tax revenue;

$6.3-$9.1 billion in new building value."

Stern went on to speculate that those numbers suggest a potential alternative financing plan, specifically, Tax Increment Financing. "In that way, development along the corridor will pay for itself and free up taxpayers to foot the bill for more worthwhile extensions of the project (such as connecting the Riverside line to the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport)." It's not clear whether a fairly speculative TIF would enable the Project to meet federal matching fund standards, but Stern's suggestion does raise the possibility that future underwriting could be funded in part from development spurred by the train.

Stern supports the decision to build a bridge over Lady Bird Lake, as less expensive and more adaptable than a tunnel, previously under consideration. For similar reasons, he argues a Hancock tunnel is a poor choice: "This is especially true when one considers that we could simply invest in increasing the frequency of the MetroRail Red Line and build a new station at North Loop to better connect with Travis County." Moreover, he argues, the expense of a Hancock tunnel would serve to feed the inevitable opposition of the "Costs Too Much, Does Too Little" opponents.

Except on talk radio, where they are a perennially voluble presence, the Road Warriors haven't yet been much a factor on Project Connect. That's not the case for those transit advocates who have long since drawn a line in the concrete on Project Connect's overall direction. Neither were they placated by the latest Project announcement.

On Friday, the Our Rail political action committee immediately issued a lengthy denunciation of the Project Connect team's recommendation, and reiterated its adamant opposition to any northside route other than the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor. Project Connect's route recommendation "speculates on future growth and relies on an uncertain forecast of economic development," declared the Our Rail press release, "but does not serve the current population. To be able to ask voters for $1.38 billion dollars to build that system, this investment must work for the whole city and our region." (Rail advocates Austinites for Urban Rail Action did not respond directly to the team's announcement, but told the Chronicle that the Highland corridor will work only if it's accompanied by upzoning to provide more residential and commercial density sufficient to support rail transit.)

Our Rail said the Highland line would serve a "non-existent transit corridor," would be a waste of local and federal money, and would undermine any future mass transit projects because it wouldn't serve enough people and would have to be heavily subsidized by taxpayers. Interestingly, the Our Rail release also criticizes the East Riverside corridor – which has enjoyed widespread support and little nay-saying – as insufficiently analyzed: "Absent current demographic data, protections for low income populations, and affordable housing, the East Riverside corridor should not be our first choice for an urban rail line. Our Rail opposes a high capacity transit investment that has not been supported with appropriate data."

In sum, Our Rail said the recommended route is only a "symbolic" one that has been designed to serve "developers and not the public" – and declared they will oppose "any ballot measure that contains urban rail service in the nearby so-called Highland sub-corridor." How broad the "transit advocate" opposition to the current rail proposal is uncertain, but it certainly won't help create a united front among rail supporters against the inevitable campaign by road warrior opponents of any and all mass transit, particularly rail.

The current timeline calls for a City Council decision on a potential ballot measure by late summer. Capital Metro CEO Linda Watson said of the overall plans, "We've listened, learned and aligned to develop this next Project Connect step fueled by the community and engineered by experts. Our rapidly growing community deserves a tangible transit system that moves people efficiently and sustainably while helping to drive our continued economic prosperity. We have to keep moving forward."

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