Faced with a population that is growing faster than the city’s infrastructure can support, Austin City Council may ask voters in November to approve the first phase of a $1.3 billion urban rail network for downtown Austin.
The electrified rail service would provide connectivity from the downtown business district to The University of Texas, and proponents say it would grease the wheels of the downtown economic engine, which provides employment for nearly 22 percent of Austin residents.
“It [would] bring a real breath of new mobility, new capacity … that we otherwise don’t have the ability to bring into downtown,” said Robert Spillar, executive director of the Austin Transportation Department, which is helping develop the urban rail initiative.
But Spillar and other transportation leaders say that just as importantly, the urban rail network would be part of a larger, interconnected, high-capacity transit system—composed of rapid-bus transit, commuter rail and regional rail—that would eventually give all Central Texans much-needed options.
“The idea is not to just get rail for downtown Austin; it is to provide a core of rail that can help start to link all the [population] centers with one another,” said Glenn Gadbois, executive director of the newly formed nonprofit Movability Austin, which provides consultancy and policy advocacy services to its members.
In the meantime, the trick for leaders is to convince constituents who live and work outside of Austin’s central core that investing in mobility improvements downtown will pay off for them down the road.
A portion of the up to $725 million the city may borrow through a bond issuance, according to the Capital Planning Office, could go to urban rail, but the rest of the funding has yet to be identified. Spillar said the Federal Transportation Administration would likely match whatever amount is raised at the local level through bonds and other avenues, as the agency has done with other cities.
But some, such as North Austin resident Gabe Rojas, are disappointed with the lack of money that has been devoted to basic mobility improvements for North Lamar Boulevard and Burnet Road, on which more than 1,200 accidents have taken place in the past two years, according to an ATD study.
“While I do agree that making Austin as a whole a livable city, starting with its core, is an admirable goal, it is time for the City of Austin to begin putting its resources into more chronically underserved areas,” Rojas said.
Rojas said he supports the proposed network, but does not believe many residents think urban rail directly affects them.
"Urban rail is expected to take a significant amount of traffic off of surrounding roads and when operating as system with other planned improvements, it should make getting around Austin a much more pleasant experience for everyone."
A complete system
This is not the first time Austin residents have weighed in on light-rail transit, the technological precursor to urban rail. In 2000, another light-rail network was narrowly defeated.
“One could argue that what’s gotten Austin in trouble in the past is that because we want to get things done so quickly, we skipped some of the critical steps in developing an understanding of how all the pieces [in a transit plan] work together,” said Todd Hemingson, vice president of strategic planning and development for Capital Metro.
This time around, however, leaders say they have a mobility strategy—“for the first time in a long time,” in Spillar’s words—and will soon be able to clearly articulate how each element of the system would be linked.
According to a draft route map, the urban rail would connect to the MetroRail Red Line at Trinity and Fourth streets as well as a new bus rapid-transit line that Capital Metro expects to begin operating in 2014.
Furthermore, Spillar said he thinks the timing is right: “Each time this community has talked about rail and has talked about new [transit] capacity, it has been in different situations. Central Austin is booming … we are using our roadways to the maximum capacity.”
A 2010 Texas Transportation Institute study shows that Austin is the third most congested city in the United States, and, in perhaps one of the most convincing arguments for urban rail, data indicates that many of the drivers commuting to downtown actually live close to the central core.
“To the extent those folks drive alone, they simply get on the roads and clog it for those who are further out and have less options,” Gadbois said.
Building community buy-in
Where transportation leaders failed in the 2000 election, they are now doubling down.
The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, composed of elected officials in the five-county Central Texas region, formed Project Connect with Capital Metro, the City of Austin and Lone Star Rail, a regional rail line currently in the planning phase that would extend from Georgetown south to San Antonio.
“We are using [Project Connect] as a means of communicating with the community about high-capacity transit,” Hemingson said, adding that another mission for the group is to figure out how urban rail fits in with the larger network.
Also in November, Mayor Lee Leffingwell revitalized the Transit Working Group, which was first created by Will Wynn in 2007, when Wynn was mayor of Austin, as a subcommittee of CAMPO to focus on how to link the various modes of high-capacity transit currently on the table.
Although the groups’ goals are similar, Hemingson said when it comes to planning, a handful of committees and subcommittees is par for the course, and the more communication between the various agencies in the region, the better.
“[We are] defining success as the user in the future won’t know or perceive a difference between the agencies; that the products we put out there, whether they be rail or bus or whatever … it will be seamless,” he said.
Correction: We incorrectly reported that state Sen. Kirk Watson started the Transit Working Group when he was mayor of Austin. The group was started in 2007 when Will Wynn was mayor of Austin. Additionally, the estimated price of the urban rail system was changed from $1.6 billion to $1.3 billion and North Austin resident Gabe Rojas' quote has been expanded for clarification.