Naked City

Rail With the Punches

At 4pm on Monday, when the most important board meeting in Capital Metro history was supposed to start, the dais was empty and the TV news talent was milling about bitterly, wishing they were covering the saga of Matthew McConaughey's bare and boozy butt. Meanwhile, deals were being struck, numbers run, and arms twisted nearly out of their sockets, as the transit authority's board, staff, friends, and foes learned once again why it has taken Austin 13 years to get this close to building a light rail transit system.

About five hours later, the Cap Met board voted 6-0 to send forward a "locally preferred alternative" alignment for the first phase of the rail system -- a segment running from McNeil Road in the northwest down the "Red/Green" alignment to downtown (described repeatedly as "Phase 1A"). Yes, this is farther than light rail has ever gotten before. This particular tasty sausage, 14.5 miles long and estimated to cost about $650 million, differs from what the Cap Met staff started with, 17 days before, as follows:

South Austin is out of Phase 1A, both for rail and for the maligned bus rapid transit (BRT) option. The Southside rail line ("Phase 1B") may be anywhere between I-35 and MoPac, not necessarily down South Congress, where some businesses don't want it. Likewise, East Austin rail (before and still part of Phase 1B) would be somewhere between the river and MLK, allowing for service to reach both Hispanic and African-American neighborhoods. Both south and east, the lack of consistent community support combined with technical issues to push light rail to the back burner, though not completely off the stove.

The northern terminus was stretched north to McNeil Road from Howard Lane to appease two constituencies -- the northwest suburbs, whose residents wanted the first-phase line to go all the way to Leander, and the advocates of commuter rail, foremost among them State Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos. McNeil Road is one of two points where the light- and commuter-rail systems could intersect; the other is at Seaholm, which could end up being the downtown terminus.

In sum, the Cap Met board did the bare minimum required by the Federal Transit Administration -- adopting a "minimum operating segment" of a starter line -- and left the rest up to future discussion and debate. This turned what, at the start of the day, looked like a 3-3 tie vote of the Cap Met board into a 6-0 sweep. Indeed, one of the purported holdouts, Council Member Beverly Griffith, ended up making the motion to adopt the route, noting that "the perfect is often the enemy of the good. And this is good." (The seventh member of the Cap Met board, Leander Mayor Charles Eaton, ended up resigning days before the vote; an attempt to delay the decision until his Williamson County replacement was named proved futile.)

If the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) -- the arbiter of regional transit planning, chaired by Barrientos -- endorses the plan on November 8, it goes on to the FTA, which will let us know in February if Austin has any hope of getting the 50% federal funds match Cap Met is counting on. Meanwhile, the preliminary engineering and environmental impact study (PE/EIS -- remember that acronym) on the Red/Green Line will commence promptly; that's the venue where the details, like where exactly the tracks and stations will be and what the cars will look like, get worked out.

And then, some time next year -- it's looking more and more like May -- light rail will go to the voters. That May date would, of course, be a City Council election date, and council is expected to vote its own endorsement of the Cap Met plans at its Oct. 28 meeting.

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