A Desire Named 'Streetcar'

Civic coalition forms to add downtown trolleys to the Capital Metro rail plan

As Capital Metro gets down to the details of a long-range transit system featuring commuter rail – and prepares to put a rail plan on a November ballot – a "broad-based community effort" dubbed Connect Austin has kicked off a campaign to ask Cap Met to bring back a downtown streetcar system as part of that plan.

The streetcar idea has picked up a lot of steam ever since Capital Metro's All Systems Go! initiative kicked off this spring – with its suggestions of commuter rail service to the Convention Center (along the "Red Line" looping through East and Northwest Austin up to Leander) and to Seaholm (along the Union Pacific line), but not necessarily between them. Though planners and leaders both at Capital Metro and the city acknowledge the value of a downtown connection between the lines, the challenges of building a rail corridor along Third or Fourth street – to replace the tracks relocated from the area in the 1980s – are both financially and logistically daunting. A major downtown construction project also opens up Cap Metro to the same sort of opposition it encountered along South Congress that helped derail its 2000 light-rail bid.

But a streetcar system, says Connect Austin, would provide a win-win alternative – more popular and efficient than downtown circulator bus service (like the current 'Dillo system), but less expensive and disruptive than a light- or heavy-rail link. Streetcars, as envisioned by Connect Austin, would be ultra-light rail – trolley or tram vehicles comparable in size to Cap Metro's typical buses, with curbside stops instead of "stations." But they would have "fixed-guideway" routes – i.e., rails in the ground – which planning pros often argue is essential if a community hopes to see a new transit system spur redevelopment along its routes. Connect Austin also envisions an electrified system, producing less noise and smoke than even the cleanest Cap Metro buses.

Even a limited streetcar system would not exactly be cheap – about $10 million a mile, Connect Austin speculates – and the 3.5-mile route the group suggests (from the Convention Center to Seaholm, and from Palmer Auditorium to UT) would significantly add to the $60 million figure Cap Metro has floated as a start-up cost for its commuter rail line. But that's still small change compared to the $1 billion line proposed in 2000, and Connect Austin intends to gather signatures to show broad public support for the streetcar plan. Members of the group include Liveable City, the Downtown Austin Alliance, and the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association.

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Connect Austin, Capital Metro, streetcars, light rail, commuter rail, Convention Center, Seaholm

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