Developing Stories: A Long Route to Go

Will we vote on urban rail in November 2010?

Urban Rail Route Options
Urban Rail Route Options

As we wait (and wait) for the Red Line to open, what's the status of that other rail transit project – the Downtown streetcar once championed by Will Wynn?

First off, no one is calling it a "streetcar" anymore. Or "light rail" or "ultra-light rail." The proposed new transit system to serve Downtown and Central Austin has been rebranded "urban rail." (That's because it's a hybrid of technologies.) Second, every transit advocate in town wants to be sure you know the project is no longer in the hands of can't-get-the-Red-Line-running Capital Metro. It's now a totally separate city of Austin project, managed by the Transportation Department. So from now on, we're to speak only of the "Austin Urban Rail Project."

By any name, here's the pressing question: Will Austinites ever get to vote on building the dang thing? Both Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Transportation Department Director Rob Spillar say they're doing everything possible to prepare for a "mobility referendum" in November 2010. That general obligation bond referendum would fund the city's portion of the initial phase of an urban rail system. Plus, perhaps separately, it would include a citywide package of bike lanes, sidewalks, greenbelt trails, missing highway interchanges, and congestion-easing road improvements. (Conventional wisdom: Include something for everyone, to win broad voter support.) The first stage would serve Downtown, the Capitol complex, and the University of Texas area; it would also probably cross the river to Riverside, later going all the way out to the airport. It would connect with two Red Line commuter rail stops, as well as, eventually, the proposed Austin/San Antonio passenger service.

To allow policy-makers and the community to decide the issue at an election, the Trans­portation Department has established an ambitious schedule of planning, environmental assessment, and preliminary engineering work. Meanwhile, different consultants will be creating a citywide Strategic Mobility Plan. They'll need to deliver the essential facts within six months. The full scope of work includes public vetting, technical proofing, accurate cost estimates, a funding plan, and more. Good, hard numbers are essential for voter confidence and future-phase federal funding. The funding plan also must go to the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organiz­a­tion; CAMPO chair and state Sen. Kirk Wat­son is reconvening an updated Transit Working Group.

In late October 2007, former Mayor Wynn called for a rail transit referendum in Novem­ber 2008. That rally failed due to lack of effective leadership, Watson's decision to prioritize CAMPO process over calling an election, Cap Metro's troubles, general political fumbling, and – most importantly – no clear funding plan. Every six months, another missed election opportunity rolls by: May 2009, November 2009, May 2010. So for those who lust after rail transit, November 2010 looms large. For years, there's been consensus that a well-conceived system with a strong funding plan would win voter endorsement. We just can't seem to call an election.

Changing The Route?

Some transit advocates believe it will take a miracle to get all the necessary decisions and work done in time for the November general election. Two months ago, the ambitious schedule of work appeared barely possible if the "alignment" (i.e., the route) didn't change. The only alternatives to be studied were: 1) how to cross the river, other than the Congress Avenue Bridge, and 2) whether Brazos Street might be a significantly cheaper place to lay rail than Con­gress, since Brazos (one block east) is already getting necessary work via the Great Streets Program. "There is a risk, if we change alignments," Spillar had acknowledged, "of missing the November election."

Since then, the "alternatives analysis" assignment given to consultant URS has been expanded to look at changing alignments. Leffingwell has been listening to Aus­tin­ites who dislike the route along San Jacin­to, up through the Capitol Complex and the UT campus. His chief of staff, Mark Nathan, said he's held about 20 meetings to gather input – and virtually no one loves San Jacinto. Instead, there's growing consensus to revisit a westward route that goes north up Lavaca, then back south down Guadalupe, from the Capitol to West Campus.

Is reopening the route issue worth the risk of missing the November election date? Nathan believes it is. (Of course, the contrary risk would be making the deadline but shortchanging the community process.) Spillar is hoping it doesn't come to an either/or choice; last week he laid out a sequence of critical-path tasks that he believes is achievable – even with reconsideration of the route. He pointed out that prior to a road referendum, no one demands a completed project design; some details could be worked out after urban rail is approved. When fully built out, a citywide system could have two north-south and two east-west routes, he said; it may be a question of which to build first.

The arguments against San Jacinto are varied. Many people are dubious that the state of Texas will initiate transit-oriented redevelopment any time soon, by tearing down parking garages along the urban rail line. Neither the state nor the University of Texas has pledged to help fund the project. (Spillar said some recent conversations with UT have been promising; he believes the university will participate.) If the line moves to Guadalupe/Lava­ca, away from state-owned land, other funding tools could be utilized – a public improve­ment district or tax-increment financing.

On the other hand, San Jacinto has been publicly studied, vetted, and announced as a decision – first by Capital Metro for its "proposed circulator alignment," then by ROMA Austin last year in its Downtown Urban Rail Connections Plan (see "Developing Stories," Aug. 1, 2008). ROMA principal Jim Adams said last week he still believes San Jacinto offers a good route that's well located to serve a huge ridership of state workers and UT folks. Spillar also likes it. (He worked on the circulator alignment while a consultant to Capital Metro, back in the day.) Both believe it's appropriate to consider alternatives at this juncture. But unfortunately, changing the route alters all the numbers – ridership, construction costs, funding dollars, and, perhaps, voter turnout.

"We're going to do everything possible to put the information on the table, within six to eight months," Spillar pledged. "Then this spring, the policy-makers are going to decide whether to go forward with an election or not."

[Editor's note: The original map accompanying this article depicted “Increment 1” of the potential rail route as heading west via Third Street; in fact, the proposed route would travel down Fourth Street, as depicted in the updated map shown here.]

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urban rail, transportation department, Lee Leffingwell

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