The Austin Chronicle

Naked City

All Aboard?

By Mike Clark-Madison, August 17, 2001, News

For two years, Austinites were whining and wondering: Why don't they bring light rail to the airport? Now, as Capital Metro tries to put its rapid transit project back on track, they've done the next best thing: bring the airport to light rail.

That would be in the person of John Almond, assistant director of the city's Dept. of Aviation and project manager for the construction of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, the biggest capital project our town has ever seen and among the most highly regarded. Almond is being loaned out by the city to Cap Met to manage the rechristened Rapid Transit Project (RTP), as the authority tries to finish what it started before it was so rudely interrupted by 2,000 or so voters last November. ("Rapid Transit Project" is actually a better name, since Cap Met's plans have always included high-occupancy vehicle lanes and expanded bus service.)

The Capital Metro board decided months ago that it would go ahead and finish the preliminary engineering and environmental impact study (PE/EIS) required by federal law for its planned transit system, even though the plan was defeated narrowly at the polls. Abandoning the study would have meant refunding the feds and cost Cap Met more money than completing it will. Plus, lots of people in power like rail and want rail and don't consider a 0.4% loss much of a mandate. So here we are.

However, as it fuels up the RTP to finish the study and, in all likelihood, bring a rail-and-bus system to voters in November 2002, Capital Metro is sending an oddly mixed message. On the one hand, it claims to be picking up just where it left off -- and, by implication, that it has no regrets about its performance leading up to the 2000 referendum. Well, sure they might have done things differently, but in the timeworn words invoked by Cap Met GM Karen Rae, "hindsight is always 20/20." And besides, the agency would have loved to wait until the PE/EIS was finished before it went to the voters, but the Legislature had already marked the date on its calendar.

On the other hand, there's a reason why Capital Metro has called in the city, and its most competent project manager, to complete a study that was theoretically going along just fine on its own, thank you very much. And they're not too proud to say so. "The city has a lot more experience at handling projects of this magnitude, and ABIA is the biggest of them all," said Council Member Daryl Slusher, a member of the Cap Met board. "In the past, Cap Metro's accountability has been questionable, and while I think we've fixed that, the agency still doesn't have the experience. So we're excited about partnering and achieving both our goals." (Remember: Light rail was officially endorsed by the Austin City Council.)

This may be selling Cap Met short, since both Rae and many of her key staff came from transit authorities that have built light rail systems, and the existing team of consultants (still on board, Cap Met says) has worked on projects all over the world. But with Almond holding the conductor's whistle, both city and Cap Met leaders feel more confident this train will arrive on time and stay on the tracks.

A good thing, because the RTP has already started off on a bumpy ride, with neighborhood leaders aggrieved they weren't properly involved in or invited to Cap Met's community meetings this week and next. "I wish we had John on board a month ago," one Cap Met topsider whispered in our ear. "He wouldn't have let stuff like that happen."

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