Transportation
8:02 pm
Thu June 26, 2014

Austin City Council Unanimously Backs Urban Rail Proposal

By a unanimous vote – Austin city council endorsed a package of proposed transportation projects Thursday night, including a $1.4 billion dollar urban rail line

The Austin City Council limited public comment on urban rail to 30 minutes for each side, which angered some public transit advocates who support the concept of urban rail but reject the proposed route of the plan. 

Proposed urban rail route backed by the Austin City Council
Proposed urban rail route backed by the Austin City Council
Credit Project Connect

"This was the speech I was going to give," former Urban Transportation Commission member Mike Dahmus said to council, tearing up a sheet of paper and crumpling it in his hands. "You've chosen ... to eliminate all meaningful opportunities for public input, as has Project Connect before you. We will make sure the [Federal Transit Administration] is aware of this."

Mayor Lee Leffingwell responded that it "probably the most open and transparent process in the history of man" – which earned both laughs and jeers from the audience.

The Federal Transit Administration would review Austin's urban rail plan and decide whether the feds should pay for half of it.

Project Connect leader Kyle Keahey says that's why they chose the route they chose, as opposed to one along Lamar Boulevard and Guadalupe Street, which is favored by some public transit advocates because it's already such a busy corridor.

"My belief, based on our analysis, is that the Highland East-Riverside corridor gives us the best opportunity [to get federal funding], as opposed to Lamar," Keahey told city council. "That's not to take anything away from Lamar. Lamar, I believe, could be competitive. I think we have a number of challenges that would have to be overcome." 

Chief among those challenges, according to Keahey, would be repaying at least part of the $38 million grant the FTA gave Austin to set up bus rapid transit -- what Capital Metro calls "MetroRapid" -- along Lamar and Guadalupe. 

But now that Austin City Council has signaled unanimous support for the existing urban rail plan, opponents may find themselves making unlikely alliances.

Jim Scaggs with the Coalition on Sustainable Transportation helped to defeat Austin's last urban rail vote in 2000. He opposes any urban rail, mainly because of the associated property tax increase. Scaggs says taxpayer advocates may ally themselves with urban rail proponents unhappy with the Highland-East Riverside route.

"You know, that's possible," Scaggs told KUT News. "I would not deny that we haven't tossed that around as a possibility. I suspect we'll be exploring that."

The Austin City Council has until August to vote on whether to put an urban rail bond on the ballot in November.

Council is expected to add some sorely needed road improvements to the bond proposition as well -- part of an effort to make it more appealing to voters. But that would also make it more expensive.