Star-crossed Planners

With competing plans for Austin's growth crowding desks all over town, sometimes it can be hard to keep track of where all the designs intersect. This is true, apparently, even if you are two of Austin's biggest urban-planning agencies -- the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau (ACVB) and Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority. When the managers of the Convention Center, which is overseen by the ACVB and Assistant City Manager Jim Smith, brought plans to the city council last month for an expansion of the facility, they failed to acknowledge that the huge building would sit smack in the middle of Cap Metro's planned course for light rail through downtown. (oops!). Although the overlap seems like an obvious oversight on someone's part, city and Cap Metro officials deny that a problem exists.

The expansion is proposed for the two-block chunk of downtown between Third and Fourth Streets, Trinity, and Red River. The parcel overlaps the path of the former Southern Pacific rail lines which were ripped up about two years ago. As light rail is currently planned, the "Red Line" would be the first route laid -- running out East Fifth Street from downtown, and then up to Cedar Park northwest of Austin -- at a bargain price of $182.3 million because it uses the existing Southern Pacific track to the east of I-35, the same track which originally connected to the now-defunct tracks across Fourth Street where the Convention Center is set to expand.

"When [Convention Center management] presented the Convention Center proposal... they pointed out that they had not planned at all for rail," says City Councilmember Daryl Slusher. He feels that the agency, which is funded by the bed tax on hotel and motel rooms, has operated in a vacuum since being privatized two years ago. Convention Center director Bob Hodge "has done a really good job of getting the Convention Center in order, but they need to think about more than just the convention and hotel industry," argues Slusher. "They're part of the city."

The Convention Center's own documentation confirms that the recent feasibility study on the expansion studied factors like "industry trends, expansion costs, and financing options," including no overview of related plans for downtown development.

Smith, who oversees the Convention Center, disagrees with critics of ACVB. "You wanna talk insular? I'd say Cap Met's been doing their planning somewhat insular," he says, explaining that the Convention Center's expansion onto the site has been planned since 1989, before light rail plans had seen the light of day. Smith also points out that the Center was always designed to expand northward, and says any expansion redesign would be costly.

"If they want to get into tit for tat," counters the Mayor's Transportation Task Force member Scott Polikov, "people have been talking about doing rail on those lines since the early Eighties."

Cap Met apologists are slightly less confident about their beleaguered agency's plans. "I'm sure we wouldn't plan anything that was in conflict with that building. I'm sure we don't want to do that. I'm sure the engineering work of this next phase will make sure the two work together," says Cap Met senior planner Ernie Martinez, explaining that the $5-10 million engineering study which was set to take place this past summer is now scheduled, tentatively, for January.

According to Martinez, the Red Line's route through downtown is not yet set in stone; he explains that "a one- or two-block difference in the downtown area won't make a dent in what we're doing."

But Capital Metro and the Convention Center aren't the only ones with plans for the Third/ Fourth Street area. Slusher has been trumpeting a plan to help the burgeoning nightlife in the area with a trolley between parking lots at either end of Third Street, and Polikov cites that proposal as a possible jumpstart for rail throughout Central Texas. According to Polikov, initial discussions to bring the Convention Center and Cap Met planning elements together have even raised the possibility of a rail stop inside the Center itself. And while neither the Convention Center expansion nor light rail have yet been funded or approved, their effects and benefits are hot topics of debate.

"On the tip of everybody's tongue -- from Pflugerville, to Round Rock, to San Marcos, to the Downtown Austin Alliance -- everyone's talking about how we implement a regional rail system," Polikov says. "And it all comes together through Third and Fourth Street corridors."

-- Kayte VanScoy

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