Naked City

Transit Transitions

Capital Metro General Manager Karen Rae
Capital Metro General Manager Karen Rae (Photo By John Anderson)

It's second-season time for Capital Metro and a whole new ball game in the light-rail league. With last week's presentation of the agency's staff-recommended transit alternative -- the "blueprint," in their words, for what Austinites will be asked to okay next year at the ballot box -- the formerly cellar-dwelling Cap Met has kicked off its do-or-die drive to be more than a bus company. The details:

  • A 20.5-mile, $687.3 million light rail transit (LRT) starter system on the "Red/Green Line" -- using Cap Met's existing rail right-of-way (the Red Line) from Howard Lane to Lamar and Airport, and then running on-street along Lamar, Guadalupe, and Colorado (the Green Line) past UT, the Capitol and downtown.

  • A bus-rapid-transit (BRT) system -- which is just like LRT without the tracks, using rubber-tired buses but running between stations on its own right-of-way -- along Congress between Fourth Street and Ben White. The BRT alternative eliminates the need to kill bats by rebuilding the Congress Avenue Bridge, which cannot carry light-rail vehicles.

  • High-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, which Capital Metro would help fund since buses are the dominant HOV users. The first phase of Cap Met's plan would coincide with HOVs along I-35 north of US 183 to Round Rock, and south of Cesar Chavez to Slaughter.

  • Not formally included in the first phase, but almost immediately on its heels, would be the light-rail extension along Fourth and across the interstate to Pleasant Valley Road. From there, future extensions include both the "Inner Red Line" through East Austin and the Orange Line out to Bergstrom. The "Outer Red Line" to Leander would also be a future phase, along with HOVs on MoPac and US 183.

  • Commuter rail from Austin to San Antonio is still up in the air, and is ultimately not up to Capital Metro. The transit authority, citing massive infrastructure headaches and potential conflicts with Union Pacific, has abandoned plans to run light rail along the Blue Line -- the MoPac tracks -- and has not, or at least not yet, made provisions for an intermodal "union station," lately proposed for Seaholm Power Plant, to link light and commuter rail.

    Capital Metro's current modeling estimates nearly 46,000 riders daily on the Red/Green/BRT system when it opens in 2007. (The BRT portion would be done in 2004.) That deadline, and a 2016 date for full buildout of all the rail lines, assumes an aggressive financing scheme relying heavily on borrowing; if Cap Met paid-as-it-went for rail construction, the whole system would not be done until 2022. "I've learned that bond and debt are not four-letter words," says Capital Metro General Manager Karen Rae.

    Rae took great pains to point out that this plan -- in transit-ese, the "refined locally preferred alternative" -- is purely based on technical considerations of ridership, cost, and logistics. Policy mandates -- such as revitalizing the Eastside with the Inner Red Line, or tying the region together with commuter rail, or pleasing the public with a train to the airport -- are another matter. And, of course, there's the reputation of Cap Met itself, which we've been told for two years will decide this issue at the ballot box some time in 2000.

    Because the feds are running out of patience with Austin, if we want their money -- and we do -- we'll probably be voting on this earlier, rather than later, next year. (Austin is one of 42 cities competing for a shrinking pool of federal "New Starts" funds.) Since Cap Met wants and needs to do further environmental-impact study and preliminary engineering before any track get laid, this moves the long and winding light-rail debate to a very fast track.

    The transit authority has held neighborhood meetings on its plan all week, is pitching it to the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization tomorrow, October 15, and is holding a public hearing at 6pm Monday, Oct. 18, at 2910 East Fifth. Those meetings will lead up to a CMTA board vote Oct. 25. Meanwhile, CAMPO -- which is finishing up its own comprehensive long-range transportation plan, and is sharing consultants with Capital Metro -- will decide whether to endorse the package at its meeting on Nov. 8.

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