In preparation for a May 22 Austin City Council work session, Robert Spillar, Austin Transportation Department executive director, recommended in a memorandum to council what part of a proposed 16.5-mile urban rail network should be built first.
The initial path—identified as Phase 1—would be about 5.5 miles long and would connect to the Capital Metro Red Line at Fourth Street, provide north-south service on Guadalupe and Lavaca streets, and end at the Mueller development in Northeast Austin.
“Nothing is going to erase traffic and rush hour, but by taking some cars off the road, urban rail can reduce delay and make driving easier for people [who] rely on cars," Spillar said.
A 2010 study by the Texas Transportation Institute concluded that Austin is the third most-congested city in the United States.
On May 7, the department released its vision of a citywide high-capacity transit system that includes the 16.5-mile urban rail network and outlines additional routes that would go to Austin Community College's Highland Business Center, the medical complex at 35th Street and North Lamar Boulevard, and would travel along South Congress Avenue. Those additions would have to go through the public input process and a seprate cost analysis.
The high-capacity transit map also indicates an extension of the Red Line to Elgin and Manor.
City Council has until sometime in August to decide whether to hold an election in November and ask voters to approve a yet-to-be-identified amount of public dollars to design, engineer and construct the initial path.
The choice to ask voters to approve funding for urban rail in November is a delicate one, as people on both sides of the issue agree that another defeat would be disastrous for the rail movement and could set it back another eight to 10 years.
As such, the city’s rank and file are beginning to question whether the time is right to ask voters to approve a measure that would likely lead to a property tax increase. Budget talks for fiscal year 2013 are just beginning, and several taxing entities in Austin, including Austin ISD and Central Health, have not officially ruled out tax increases.
“We are paying very close attention to [what the other bodies are doing] and that will be an important factor in deciding when and how to go forward [with urban rail],” Mayor Lee Leffingwell told Community Impact Newspaper.
In addition, the Bond Election Advisory Task Force will present to City Council in June a $575 million bond package to fund capital improvements citywide on the November ballot, meaning a possible rise in city property tax.
The transportation department plans to present to City Council on May 29 a recommendation about how to pay for the first leg of the network. As proposed, the full network is estimated to cost $1.3 billion, though up to half of that may be funded through grants from the Federal Transportation Authority.
According to the memo, if financial constraints are such that the entire first phase “cannot be achieved,” Spillar said the proposed first alignment "could be further refined or phased to reduce costs.” He recommended ending with a connection to the Red Line near Hancock Center in North Central Austin or linking with the MetroRail Red Line at Fourth Street and providing connections to employment destinations throughout downtown, the state Capitol Complex and The University of Texas.
The memo also outlines a second phase that would extend the network by about 4 miles. That line would cross Lady Bird Lake and end at Pleasant Valley and East Riverside Drive.
A spokesperson for the Austin Transportation Department said the time between the two phases would be up to City Council and voters.