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Urban rail route firms up, centers on Trinity-San Jacinto corridor

East Riverside Drive. A new bridge, or tunnel, crossing the river. Trinity Street and San Jacinto Boulevard. Red River Street. And either Airport Boulevard or an Interstate 35 frontage road to Highland Mall.

That’s the recommended route officials unveiled Friday of what almost surely would be an electric-powered passenger rail line, a project decades in the making that the city of Austin likely will take to voters in November for authorization of hundreds of millions of dollars in bonds.

The proposed nine-mile route would stitch together Central Austin, downtown and Southeast Austin, running from the emerging Austin Community College campus at Highland Mall through the University of Texas, downtown and along East Riverside Drive to Grove Boulevard. With minor deviations, it follows a path familiar from the series of maps that transit planners previously have drawn for what they call “urban rail.”

Officials with Project Connect — a joint effort of the city, Capital Metro and the Lone Star Rail District — left open the possibility that the proposal in its final form could involve buses rather than train cars. But, based on years of statements from local officials, the odds are high that rail will prevail this summer when the proposal takes final form and goes before the Austin City Council. The council likely will decide by August whether to put a bond proposal on the November ballot.

Project Connect officials also recommended Friday that the service run every 10 to 15 minutes with stops a half-mile to a mile apart outside of downtown, where stations likely would be more closely bunched. And they said the twin tracks should run on “mostly dedicated” right of way, meaning that the trains wouldn’t share lanes with traffic for much of the line. In turn, that would likely mean the elimination of some car lanes on most of the route.

Although Friday’s map shows the entire route, that doesn’t necessarily mean that bonds to help finance all nine miles will go on the ballot this fall.

“We can’t answer that yet,” said Kyle Keahey, who leads Project Connect’s rail efforts. “Our perspective is it’s one project. But the question is, how do we phase it? It could be just one phase.”

Also left unanswered, at least for a couple more months, is a raft of crucial details. Among those: the cost of construction; annual operating costs and what entity or entities would cover those costs; who will run the line; where the train would have its own dedicated corridor; and where stations would be located.

The route of the northern couple of miles, from Hancock Center to Highland Mall, also needs more study, Keahey said. It could follow Airport Boulevard (but not on Capital Metro’s nearby MetroRail track, Keahey said, given that it also carries freight trains), or run along the west edge of Interstate 35’s southbound frontage road. That latter alternative, he said, likely would require elevated track.

And Keahey said his staff will look at whether the river crossing could be a tunnel rather than a new bridge over Lady Bird Lake. However, he said that a tunnel probably wouldn’t be able to emerge from below ground until as far north as East Seventh Street, a potentially fatal flaw.

Perhaps the most crucial lingering issue is how to pay for the construction. Officials have assumed that the Federal Transit Administration, after a complex and competitive application process, could cover half the cost.

But taking on the entire route at once, from Grove Boulevard to Highland Mall, would require several hundred million dollars more than the half-billion-dollar figure generally seen as the target over the past few years. In turn, that would mean that the city of Austin could be asking voters to take a much larger debt load — and the accompanying property tax increase to pay it back — than the $200 million to $300 million previously envisioned.

A decision to build both north and south of the river could soothe the concerns of at least some of what has been a restive corps of rail activists disappointed at officials’ rejection in 2013 of a North Austin route centered on Guadalupe Street and North Lamar Boulevard. That faction had argued that ridership in that corridor and along East Riverside would be much greater than in the Red River to Highland Mall sector.

And they are concerned now that, because of the expense of crossing the lake and bias by those in charge for the Highland corridor, the first segment would run only from the mall to downtown.

“Starting at East Riverside would be the unifying choice,” Jace Deloney, who helped found Austinites for Urban Rail Action, said on the advocacy group’s blog. “I hope the mayor and Council look at the data and make the right decision. We need to serve regular Austinites, not speculate on shaping growth.”

The final recommendation, along with details about stations, train technology, financing and governance of the line, should emerge by April, Keahey said. An advisory committee appointed by Mayor Lee Leffingwell likely will vote on a “locally preferred alternative” in May, followed by the City Council and Capital Metro board in June. The council by mid-August would take the crucial final vote on the bond election.

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