Naked City

Ranked and Filed

Well, scratch one item off Capital Metro's light-rail to-do list. After several weeks, or months, or perhaps years, of waiting and nail-biting, the transit authority has finally received a ranking from the Federal Transit Administration for its long-debated rail project.

Last week, the FTA, part of the U.S. Dept. of Transportation, officially handed down a "recommended" ranking to Capital Metro's starter "Red/Green" line, running from McNeil Road through Northwest Austin, then down the Lamar/ Guadalupe corridor past UT, the Capitol Complex, and into downtown, ending at Fourth and Colorado. This 14.6-mile segment of what Cap Met envisions as a 54-mile rail system would carry about 17,000 riders a day and cost $739 million -- of which the Feds are being asked to pay half, which is why an FTA ranking is so important.

A nod from the FTA doesn't guarantee that Cap Met will get a dime, since that's up to Congress. But this just-completed "New Starts" ranking process is an extra hurdle, on top of the usual studies, that Congress set up just for new urban transit projects. (There is no equivalent process for new highway projects.) So Congress tends to take the FTA's opinions seriously.

To be adjudged worthy, a project like Cap Met's has to impress the Feds on a bunch of criteria -- saving people travel time, serving low-income households, reducing air pollutant emissions, saving energy, costing less to operate than the status-quo system (usually, and in Austin's case, bus service) or other alternatives. On all of these, Capital Metro got a "medium" ranking -- a two on a three-point scale.

Surprisingly, at least to the Smart Growth-steeped Austin poli-scenester, Cap Met also got a "medium" on the FTA's favorite criterion, the existence of "transit-supportive land use and future patterns." This ranking, the FTA noted in its preliminary report, "reflects existing conditions in the corridor, with a mix of from moderate to low densities, but including a number of major trip generators."

The Austin scene has been focused on what those mod-to-low-density districts will look like when Smart Growth has taken hold -- and on using rail to spur on neo-traditional, NewUrb, transit-friendly infill. But though Central Austin may look a lot different in 2007, when Cap Met hopes to have the Red/Green finished, the FTA has to evaluate based on current conditions, though it does applaud the city and community's "proactive efforts ... supportive of transit-oriented development." Since the FTA has to re-rank projects every year, it may raise Austin's score once Smart Growth gets past its lengthy conceptual stage.

The Feds also cite Cap Metro's analysis that the Red/Green will yield net economic benefits of $323.7 million, mostly through rail-corridor and station-area development. Cap Met got a better ranking -- "medium-high" -- on its financial plan, "assuming the current one-cent dedicated sales tax revenue remains in place."

Now, some experts and advocates, both inside and outside the transit authority, expected Cap Met to get an even higher ranking -- "highly recommended" -- than it did, so there is room here for disappointment. But, says Cap Met Communications Director Dianna Galaviz, "we're happy with the rating, because it was a real tough competition and review."

"The cities we were competing with were so much larger and have such extensive rail systems," Galaviz continues. "We're probably the smallest urbanized area that's on the list." Much of the New Starts kitty -- about a billion dollars annually -- goes to finishing out systems that have been in progress (and receiving federal funds) for years, and Cap Met wants to join that parade. That's why Cap Met was so focused on getting an FTA ranking now, and getting at least a little money out of the fiscal 2001 federal budget, even though it won't know until November if local voters even want light rail.

But since Capital Metro changed its starter-line alignment late in the game (from "Red" to "Red/ Green"), and thus delayed its annual ranking, the FTA did not include Austin in its fiscal 2001 budget request. This puts the burden on Cap Metro's crack lobbying team -- including former governor Ann Richards -- to get some of Uncle Sam's sugar out of a GOP Congress for a Democratic district in an election year. The FTA ranking, while not magic, will certainly help in that labor.

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