Austin Officials Attempt to Defuse Flap Over Urban Rail Plan

Urban rail plan or bureaucratic placeholder?

by Ben Wear, McClatchy News Service / April 10, 2014

Local transportation officials scrambled to defuse concerns Wednesday after a document surfaced indicating that the first segment of a 9-mile rail route would be built from downtown Austin to Hancock Center and that a connection south of Lady Bird Lake would not be complete for another 15 years.

Not true, Capital Metro officials said, the five-phase outline for urban rail listed in a Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization document was simply a placeholder submitted in January. Once a final plan for urban rail is complete and approved this summer by the Austin City Council and Capital Metro board, rail officials will go to the CAMPO board and amend that document.

Austin voters then might be asked in November to authorize several hundred million dollars of bonds for the project.

In the short run, given the Twitter kerfuffle over the version now circulating, a still older and clearly out-of-date urban rail plan will displace the placeholder, said Todd Hemingson, Capital Metro’s vice president of strategic planning and development.

Officials with Project Connect, a joint mass transit planning effort of the city of Austin and Capital Metro, released in Februarya 9-mile route running from Highland Mall in Central Austin, through the University of Texas and downtown, and then southeast on East Riverside Drive to Grove Drive.

But the route, particularly the section north of downtown, is unpopular with a faction of rail supporters. Many of them have been arguing for more than a year that rail should run west of the recommended route on Guadalupe Street and North Lamar Boulevard. Or failing that, they say the city should build the section from East Riverside to the university first.

They have been waiting with some impatience for Project Connect to release a plan detailing the order in which segments would be built, although installing the whole route at once remains a possibility, albeit an expensive one. Officials said Wednesday that the recommended plan will be unveiled May 2 at a meeting of Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell’s rail advisory committee.

But the CAMPO document that emerged Wednesday seemed to indicate a decision had already been made and that a North Austin segment had prevailed. Opponents of the Highland segment quickly took to Twitter to announce that Project Connect had revealed its intentions.

According to the listing, rail construction would occur in this order: a $275 million segment from Lady Bird Lake to Hancock Center near East 41st Street opening by 2020; a $35.8 million spur from somewhere downtown to the Seaholm Power Plant area to be done by 2023; a $91.4 million extension from Hancock Center to Highland Mall opening in 2024; a $216 million segment on East Riverside from Pleasant Valley Road (rather than Grove) to “Riverside,” also by 2024; and, finally connecting the pieces to the north and south, a $258 million bridge or tunnel from Riverside to downtown in 2029.

“I can see how a reasonable person could draw that conclusion” that Project Connect had settled on a plan, Hemingson said.

But, he said, the rail planning staff had to give CAMPO its best guess in January as that agency works toward its next 25-year transportation plan for the area. The CAMPO board will approve a final version more than a year from now.

What are chances that the rail plan released May 2 will be different than the five-phase plan that stirred up all the angst and suspicion?

“One hundred percent,” Hemingson said. How different, however, officials were not prepared to say Wednesday.

Julie Montgomery is a member of Leffingwell’s rail advisory group and one of the organizers of Austinites for Urban Rail Action, a group against the Highland route. She said was particularly surprised to see the Seaholm spur appear on a plan conceived as recently as January, given that only a month later, Project Connect released a route that didn’t show it.

“It seems like a very questionable choice for a placeholder, especially given how contentious the issue of phasing has been,” Montgomery said. “But I will keep an open mind that they’re being sincere about it just being a placeholder, until we hear otherwise.”

©2014 Austin American-Statesman, Texas