Austin to try again for light rail

Good luck, y’all.

A consultant hired by the city is recommending a 14-mile light-rail system for Central Austin, not streetcars as proposed by Capital Metro. The system would run from the airport to downtown, through the University of Texas and east to the emerging Mueller development.

The route is essentially the same one City Council Member BrewsterMcCracken and Austin Mayor Will Wynn have been talking about for the past six months or so. The proposal, finished just seven weeks after the council voted to pay ROMA Design Group up to $250,000 to produce it, comes as a “transit task force” formed by Wynn and state Sen. Kirk Watson moves into the final stages ofcreating a process to analyzerail proposals.

No one yet knows how the proposal, which likely will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, would be paid for.

That task force would almost surely analyze this proposal, and the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board (chaired by Watson) would have the final say. But it is not clear whether such an examination could occur quickly enough for the light-rail proposal to be put before voters in November. Wynn has said he would like to have a rail vote this year, but there will be a number ofcomplicated questions about costs and benefits.

Watson, who was in South Texas on Tuesday, had not seen the proposal and had no comment. But Watson said that the process created by the task force “will allow any project to be fully vetted in a transparent, open, complete way.”

McCracken, at least, said he think that the proposal can make it through that gantlet to a public vote in November, which he said would probably involve voters being asked to approve some sort of long-term debt.

“Yes, I think that’s likely,” McCracken said of getting the proposal onto the ballot in time.

Council Member Lee Leffingwell has his doubts. He said that only Wynn and McCracken, to his knowledge, had been briefed on the rail proposal.

“The key to this whole thing has been, how’s this going to be paid for?” Leffingwell said. “If you just want to put the concept on the ballot in November, that would be one thing. But if you’re talking about some sort of financial commitment by the city, I think it would be very hard to get there by that time.”

Leffingwell and McCracken are often mentioned as likely candidates for mayor next year.

That ought to liven up their City Council meetings for the summer. Nothing like a little political rivalry to add heat to otherwise mundane agenda items.

A major criticism of the light rail that voters rejected in 2000 was that it would take street lanes away from car traffic. Not so, in this case, McCracken said, although the tracks would be in “dedicated lanes” segregated from cars. The space for the tracks, McCracken said, would come from available right of way on Riverside east of Interstate 35. Downtown, the tracks would run on pavement currently occupied by parked cars, he said.

The tracks, McCracken said, might take two lanes from the bridge over Lady Bird Lake, he said, although alternatively it could use the space now taken up by sidewalks. In that case, a sidewalk alternative bridge, such as the one on the South First Street bridge, would continue pedestrian and bicycle access across the lake on Congress.

The dedicated-lane concept was news even to Charlie Betts, executive director of the Downtown Austin Alliance. The alliance has been firmly behind the streetcar plan, in which the trolleys would share lanes with cars. To avoid reducing lanes on Congress would require tearing up the curb and sidewalk extensions that currently delineate the parking spaces.

“That’s a new wrinkle, and we haven’t had time to think about it,” Betts said.

You can see a map here. I don’t know Austin’s geography well enough to know how much sense this makes, but I do know that Mike Dahmus, who had previously crapped on the streetcar plan, is supporting this. The comments at BOR are pretty positive as well. Take that for what it’s worth.

Interesting sidebar, from the News 8 Austin story:

“We have a responsibility with $4 gasoline coming into play in the future, it’s the voters’ decision whether they want to move forward with that plan,” McCracken said.

So far, that argument hasn’t come up all that much in Houston. I think that’s mostly because all of the real fighting was done before gas prices really skyrocketed. But as there are sure to be more battles to come, both over the existing Metro plan and whatever future expansion ideas it’s working on, I expect this point to be raised again. I don’t know how it will play here, but I look forward to finding out.

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2 Responses to Austin to try again for light rail

  1. Kevin Whited says:

    ** I don’t know how it will play here, but I look forward to finding out. **

    We’ll see what happens!

  2. M1EK says:

    Thanks for the link, Charles. It’s not that I think this is great, but it’s the only hope we have of doing an end-run around the truly awful commuter rail plan, which not only can’t ever be extended anywhere anybody wants to go now or in the future, but actively prevents technologies that _can_ (light rail down Guadalupe can’t justify taking away a car lane if it can’t also run on the northwest suburban corridor, for instance).

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