With its sights on a November vote, the Austin Transportation Department recommended to City Council on May 22 what part of a proposed 17.5-mile urban rail network should be built first and presented long-awaited details about how that leg could be funded.
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 service on Guadalupe and Lavaca streets, and end at the Mueller development in Northeast Austin.
A second phase would add about 4 miles with a route on San Jacinto Boulevard and Congress Avenue as well as one crossing Lady Bird Lake, ending at the intersection of East Riverside and Pleasant Valley drives.
Officials said the cost to design, engineer and construct Phase 1 would be about $550 million—up to half of which may be paid for by the Federal Transit Authority. Of the $275 million or so that would need to be raised locally, about $250 million would likely have to come from bonds.
The rest could be raised from parking meter revenue, sales tax money owed to the city by Capital Metro as well as in-kind right of way donations, among other smaller sources.
City Council has until mid-August to decide whether to ask voters in November to devote bond money to get the line up and running. But with planning about five months behind schedule and increasing competition for resources from other city projects, a vote this year is looking less and less likely, city officials have hinted.
Debating the route
In the meantime, the topic of urban rail has been a frequent—and often the only—agenda item for the weekly meetings of the Transit Working Group, which is chaired by Mayor Lee Leffingwell and counts among its 17 members Tom Stacy of the Downtown Austin Alliance and Alan McGraw, mayor of Round Rock.
The purpose of urban rail is not only to spur development, but also to get people from where they live to where they work. So for some of the group’s members, as well as several outsiders, the proposed trajectory has begged the question: Why not start with a line going to Southwest Austin, home to nearly 25,000 people who work in Central Austin? Or to Northwest Austin, where there are almost 20,000 people commuting for work?
Austin Transportation Department director Robert Spillar said that because the FTA approved a $38 million grant in April to fund the majority of a new rapid-bus transit system that would run on Burnet Road to South Lamar Boulevard and on North Lamar and South Congress Avenue, he did not think the agency would be inclined to provide another grant for transit along the same streets for several years.
“A second corridor, a new corridor, a different corridor, would stand a much better chance to get federal funding,” Spillar said.
A path to Mueller
Until at least December 2001, various maps of a proposed light rail line, the technological precursor to urban rail, had service south of Lady Bird Lake.
In 2004, however, Capital Metro’s All Systems Go long-range plan identified rapid buses as the preferred mode of transit on South Congress and South Lamar, and plans to put buses that could supposedly travel with more ease in traffic by keeping lights green longer—buses that just received federal funding—began.
But urban rail was by no means dead. A 2010 transit analysis conducted by the city recommended urban rail to connect the Capitol, east UT campus, Mueller and the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
However, some, including Leffingwell, have taken issue with the methodology used to reach that conclusion. The study ranked 13 key corridors—for instance, from lower downtown to south of Lady Bird Lake—based on how well each met a list of six criteria, such as maximizing environmental benefits and improving transit connectivity.
Providing service from the Capitol complex to west Central Austin or from downtown to South Austin, ranked lower than connecting UT with Mueller.
Even so, the route as it is proposed has its supporters—among them John Langmore, a member of the working group and the Capital Metro board. Langmore said he thinks a line out to Mueller makes sense given expected growth.
“If this goes on the ballot in November, you aren’t going to break ground probably for four years, and you probably won’t have anything running for six [years],” he said. “Mueller is a longer-term play, but there will be the day, in my opinion, when people look at Mueller when it’s fully built out and say, ‘Thank God we serve that with rail.’”
Mueller, right now about one-third of the way developed, is home to approximately 1,400 households and 3,300 jobs, according to master planner Catellus. When Mueller is fully built out, Catellus is expecting 5,700 households and 10,000 jobs.
The path to Mueller is also the one of least resistance. Neighborhood associations around Mueller have generally been supportive of an urban rail line, and access to urban rail has been one of the major selling points to residents.
“I think they want [urban rail], and I think they are frustrated that it hasn’t already happened,” said Rick Krivoniak, who sits on the city’s Robert Mueller Municipal Airport Plan Implementation Advisory Commission.
On the other hand, in 2000, when a light rail route along South Congress Avenue was still on the table, South Congress merchants were outspoken in their opposition, according to reports.
Timing it right
The choice to ask voters whether to fund urban rail in November is a delicate one, as people on both sides of the issue agree that a defeat would be disastrous for the rail movement and could set it back another eight to 10 years.
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. The city’s rank and file are not sure if voters would approve urban rail if it would lead to a property tax increase.
“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],” Leffingwell said.
In addition, City Council will consider a recommendation on June 5 from a citizen task force to issue $575 million in bonds to fund capital improvements citywide, meaning a possible rise in city property tax.
According to the city’s Capital Planning Office, Austin has the capacity to take on up to $725 million of debt; however, a bond issuance of that size would result in an additional $105 per year in property taxes by 2016 for the typical homeowner. A $625 million bond issuance would lead to an additional $83 per year in the same time period.