Austin transit advocates debate proposed route

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell has said solving the region's transportation crisis requires a big solution. On Nov. 4 voters will weigh in on that big solution: a $1 billion plan for the city's first urban rail line and other regional road projects.

Proposition 1 asks voters to authorize the city to sell $600 million in bonds to fund a 9.5-mile urban rail line running from East Riverside Drive through the city's core to The University of Texas and ending at Austin Community College's Highland campus. If approved rail would be operational by 2022.

The route is part of the Project Connect regional transportation plan that was the result of the work of the Transit Working Group led by Leffingwell.

"Everybody that comes into the core of the city benefits whether or not they ride rail because somebody's going to be riding rail, and that means fewer cars," said Martha Smiley, who sat on the Project Connect Central Corridor Advisory Group to assist the mayor with choosing the route.

Starting construction on the urban rail route is contingent upon two factors: the city securing a $600 million match from the Federal Transit Administration for rail and securing $400 million for road projects.

The latter would be achieved by the city selling $400 million in nonvoter-approved state highway bonds. Funding the $1 billion plan would require increasing the city's debt service property tax rate by 6.25 cents. The resulting increase on a taxpayer's bill with a $200,000 home value would be $217 annually, according to city analysis.

Many supporters and opponents of the $1 billion plan agree a multimodal approach is necessary for aiding traffic congestion. They disagree on the means to the end.

"We must have an extensive rail transit system throughout the city one day," said Lyndon Henry, a rail advocate and transportation planning consultant. "In order to get there we have to spend our dollars wisely. We can't be spending huge amounts of money and soaking up the oxygen, so to speak, with one project. We're not going to be able to afford to extend the [system] throughout the city like we need to."

Urban rail basics

Urban rail is a combination of streetcars and light rail. Unlike MetroRail—a commuter rail line with its own grade-separated tracks—urban rail would operate in the street. Urban rail Project Lead Kyle Keahey said rail would be in its own guideway and separated from vehicle traffic with a curb.

Keahey said the system would be powered by overhead power lines and would not require crossing gates to travel through traffic signals. Trains would not block intersections and take no longer than a bus to get through a traffic signal.

"What we want to be able to do is to establish priority for the [rail cars]" Keahey said. "That means we have to tinker with the [traffic] signal system to give them that priority."

Urban rail would operate in the existing median on Riverside Drive. On Trinity Street one lane of traffic and parking would be eliminated. Keahey said garage access to buildings would be preserved, but planners have not determined if rail would run in the center of the road or on either side. On Red River Street, Keahey said the city has less right of way for operation, and rail might have to share lanes with vehicles.

The total cost for the urban rail plan is $1.38 billion in 2020 dollars. Funding includes $100 million for a signature bridge dedicated for rail over Lady Bird Lake and a tunnel to pass under the MetroRail tracks near the Hancock Center.

If the city and FTA each allocate $600 million, nearly

$200 million of the project would remain unfunded. To make up the difference, Keahey said the city could reduce the scope of the project, identify other funding sources or reduce costs through value engineering.

"We haven't trimmed costs," he said. "We've been very careful in making sure we didn't underestimate our costs."

Location, location, location

Henry, a former Capital Metro board member, represents the Our Rail political action committee of transit supporters who support an alternative urban rail route on North Lamar Boulevard and Guadalupe Street. This route is similar to the failed light rail plan from 2000.

He said the proposed route included in Prop. 1 misses the third-densest residential community in the state—West Campus. Many communities and businesses along Guadalupe/Lamar already support rail in that corridor and spent years studying it and implementing rail into neighborhood plans.

"We have a responsibility to those neighborhoods and all those residents who not only put time, effort and brain power into all this but their hopes," he said. "... We want to put that back together."

Smiley said rail advocates should be supportive of any transit solution that aims to aid congestion, and she has concerns about Our Rail's claim of bringing a new plan to voters in two or three years if Prop. 1 fails.

"If we could agree that this is the first segment of a system that [eventually] will be built to include Guadalupe/Lamar, then we can begin today," she said. "We'd be a lot closer to the result they want than we will be if this fails and we have to start over."

She said planners studied several high-capacity transit corridors and sought the best plan to submit to the FTA. Because Capital Metro received $38.1 million for MetroRapid buses in the Guadalupe/Lamar corridor, she said FTA officials indicated it likely would not fund rail for the same corridor.

"Why would we double up on one corridor at the expense of other corridors that need that kind of service?" she said.

Scott Morris with Our Rail disputes this and said a Capital Metro memo indicates if the city reassessed its transit priorities on the corridor, the FTA would consider funding other options. He said Lamar is also one of the most congested roadways in the city and cannot be ignored any longer.

"[Light rail] provides very localized congestion relief," he said. "When the outlying areas say they have lost connection to their downtown they're not saying rail is not the answer. What they're saying is this rail package is not the answer."

Morris said it is the wrong plan to submit to the FTA because it speculates on economic development and passes through 1.6 miles of tax-exempt land near UT and the Capitol.

Transit options

Not everyone will use the urban rail line, but supporters say having options is necessary. Ted Siff, president of the Austin Environmental Democrats, said the club endorsed Prop. 1 as well as city bonds in 2010 and 2012 for transportation improvements such as roads and sidewalks.

"What's reflective of the club's support of all three of these is the real issue of getting more choice to the individual user in a number of ways," he said.

From a business perspective, Silicon Labs CEO Tyson Tuttle said the city needs more transportation options.

"As people come here it's just continued to get more and more congested," he said. "That's why you need different options and different modes to give people ... besides just sitting in your car."

Patrick Goetz with grass-roots urbanist group AURA said the organization supports less-costly transit options such as expanding the city's bus system and allowing for greater density near transit corridors to build ridership.

"Rail is never ever going to reduce congestion," he said. "It's disingenuous to say that it will. What rail does is give you transportation choices. Congestion will be constant no matter what you do."


Mandy De Mayo—executive director of HousingWorks Austin, a research, policy, advocacy and education organization—said there is a clear link between transit and housing.

"[Transit] opens the door for more intentional location of affordable housing rather than just taking advantage of whatever site comes up for sale," she said. "If we're really being intentional about where we're locating affordable housing, [it needs to be] in proximity to transit."

De Mayo said urban rail would allow the city to realize the Imagine Austin comprehensive plan that envisions compacted and connected communities where people of all income levels live in proximity to work, play and school.

Although HWA's board unanimously endorsed the urban rail plan because of opportunities for new affordable housing, it recognized some voters could struggle to pay additional taxes while not receiving any direct benefit.

"It's part of the city's infrastructure, just like schools and parks," De Mayo said, adding affordable housing and transportation are critical to the city's infrastructure.

Roger Falk of advocacy group Travis County Taxpayers Union said the proposed plan is better for developers than residents.

"Rail-based development is [largely] a product of taxpayer giveaways," he said. " What happens to people who have been living here and are priced out of area?"

Roads most traveled

Falk also takes issue with Prop. 1 paying for road projects on state highways. He said the city also should not spend money to identify where the traffic is but on specific solutions for RM 620, RM 2222 and Loop 360.

"[The city is] not turning a shovel of dirt. I ask people all the time and most people don't know [that]," he said.

He added that repayment on the $400 million worth of road bonds would be expensive. Falk said repayment is a two-to-one cost meaning for every $1 the city borrows, it pays $2.

Robert Spillar, director of the city of Austin's Transportation Department, said the city sees itself as a partner in providing solutions for regional traffic congestion because the city makes up 40 percent of the region's population.

Spillar said the $400 million plan features keystone projects that open up opportunity for other projects. The city would also have shovel-ready projects that could receive funding for construction.

"We don't want this region to be in a position where we're not ready to go to construction on major regionally significant projects," he said.