Streetcar Dreams Deferred

Now what?

"Obviously we're not going to have an election in November," said Brewster McCrack­en this week, joining Mayor Will Wynn in conceding a delay of the required vote on an urban rail transit project proposed for Central Aus­tin. So when might we see a voter referendum: May or November 2009? While Capital Metro is restricted to calling elections only in November of even-numbered years, McCrack­en said he saw "probably 10 different ways not to be bound by that," such as having the referendum called by the city of Austin or a partnership. "We could expand the system with an election next May, if it can be legally treated as an extension of the commuter rail system," suggested Transit Working Group member (and streetcar advocate) Mike Krusee.

"We do need a new goal," said a newly tempered McCracken, "but first we need to do consensus-building among all of us, on what that goal should be." The city of Austin is bowing to Capital Area Metropolitan Plan­ning Organization directives for a regional planning process in which all projects are to be integrated and evaluated on their merits. To help the city answer the exacting questions on the new CAMPO Transportation Invest­ment Decision Tree, consultant ROMA Austin is continuing to analyze, evaluate, and amass the detailed information required – on mobility benefits, technologies, alignments, preliminary cost estimates, and ridership. But the data needed on funding and financing mechanisms lies outside ROMA's scope of work. McCracken said a staff team directed by City Manager Marc Ott and Assistant City Manag­er Robert Goode (another recent Fort Worth transplant) has begun analyzing how other cities have financed urban rail systems.

"We're very close to having ROMA wrap up a cohesive package of analysis," said city Urban Design Officer Jim Robertson. But no schedule is yet in place for when the transit data (part of a broader Downtown Austin Plan mobility study) would be presented to City Council, and eventually to CAMPO. Given the other pieces of the puzzle that must come together – new Cap Metro criteria for transit-funding partnerships, a potential new agreement for commuter service to San Antonio – McCracken foresaw that the entire streetcar/urban rail vetting process might reasonably take another four to six months. One safe prediction: Nothing will get on a ballot until CAMPO Chair Kirk Watson thinks it's ready to roll.

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