Group approves Highland-East Riverside subcorridor as potential urban rail route

The group advising Mayor Lee Leffingwell to choose a route for urban rail approved Dec. 6 a recommendation to move forward with analyzing the Highland-East Riverside subcorridor as a possible route.

This subcorridor—which runs from Highland Mall along Airport Boulevard and Red River Street through the downtown core and over to East Riverside Drive—is a part of the Central Corridor in the Project Connect regional plan.

The Project Connect planning team has been studying data on ridership, population, employment and land use over the past several weeks to see how the 10 proposed subcorridors ranked. The East Riverside and Highland corridors ranked in the top two spots in all the criteria used, Urban Rail Lead Kyle Keahey said.

The Central Corridor Advisory Group, led by Leffingwell, approved the Project Connect planning team's recommendation with a vote of 14–1 to further analyze the Highland-East Riverside corridor in phase 2 of the process of planning for the city's next high-capacity transit investment, which could include urban rail.

During phase 2, the planning team and CCAG members will look at potential streets that high-capacity transit could use, what mode of transportation would be pursued and potential for ridership. The team will bring forth the final route recommendation in June.

It could still be seven or eight years before any project would be up and running, Keahey said, because the city will have to follow National Environmental Policy Act process and complete preliminary engineering work before construction can begin.

Much of the discussion during the Dec. 6 meeting centered on why Lamar was not being seriously considered as a priority subcorridor even though it has gained public support.

City Councilman Bill Spelman said that with MetroRapid, Capital Metro's bus-rapid transit system, launching Jan. 26, the agency's $38 million Federal Transit Administration grant would be at risk.

"If we tried to put a train on that same corridor, two things happen," Spelman said. "One, the FTA says we have to give the money back. Second, there are a lot of practical difficulties with laying down tracks on exactly the same right of way that we're trying to run a bus-rapid transit line on. We can't do both of those things at the same time."

CCAG member Julie Montgomery, from Austinites for Urban Rail Action, said this response to why Lamar shouldn't be pursued is disingenuous because MetroRapid will have many years to be successful before rail would break ground. She voted against motion to recommend the Highland-East Riverside corridor because she wanted to see how the Lamar subcorridor would rank against them.

"There are a lot of good reasons we should have kept studying Lamar," she said. "If a Lamar subcorridor route really would not have stacked up above the Highland subcorridor route under FTA criteria, then we need to know that. If we can show that to Lamar advocates they're going to be way more likely to get on board with a plan that goes through a Highland subcorridor."

The Capital Metro board of directors will be briefed Dec. 11 on the recommendation, and City Council will be briefed Dec. 12 and also might take a vote. The Lone Star Rail District board will be briefed at its next meeting March 7. These are the three entities spearheading the Project Connect plan.

The next CCAG meeting is Jan. 17 at 1:30 p.m. at Austin City Hall.

By Amy Denney

Managing Editor, Austin metro

Amy has worked for Community Impact Newspaper since September 2010, serving as reporter and senior editor for the Northwest Austin edition as well as covering transportation in the Austin metro. She is now managing editor for the 10 publications in the Central Texas area from Georgetown to New Braunfels. She enjoys spending time with her husband, son and two cats.