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Wear: Larger rail vision for Austin would carry a big price tag

Nothing like a snappy headline to get people’s attention.

“Cluster@#%!,” reads the 48-point screamer on the front of Let’s Go Austin’s huge mailer advocating for the city of Austin’s $1 billion light rail-and-roads ballot measure. And yes, those last four characters are actually on the mailer.

Shame on you for thinking otherwise.

The headline references six photos just below showing cars stacked up on MoPac Boulevard, Interstate 35 and other Austin highways. The idea is that if voters approve Proposition 1 — allowing construction of a 9.5-mile-long electric rail starter line, a half dozen or so highway projects and several engineering studies — those projects will declusterize the @#%! out of Austin traffic.

Maybe, maybe not. That’s why we’re having an election.

But what drew my eye, moreso than the implied profanity, was the enormous map inside the 17-inch-by-22-inch campaign piece sent to thousands of Austinites in the past week or so. The map, labeled “Austin Regional Rail Transit Plan,” shows a multicolor spiderweb of light rail, commuter rail and “regional” rail lines, along with highlighting along five highways and yellow circles designated as “construction projects.”

Wow, all of that for $1 billion? Sign me up.

Read much closer, however, and it becomes clear that the $1 billion will pay for only one small piece of that rail web — the part shown in lighter green, for $600 million of borrowed money — and those seven yellow circles for the other $400 million. And building the rail part will require at least another $600 million from the federal government.

All of this is no accident, of course. Getting to that map on that mailer — also posted on the advocacy’s group’s website at — has been a three-year process.

The city of Austin and its junior partner Capital Metro had foundered trying to build popular support for a Central Austin light rail system when, in 2011, they called in experts from other cities with light rail on the ground. What Austin needed, they said, was a long-term transit vision. Get that done properly, they said, and maybe you can sell the initial piece of rail.

So the city and Capital Metro formed Project Connect, and regenerated a community advisory group called the Transit Working Group. Their first order of business was to create what came to be called a “high-capacity transit vision.” The working group approved a map of that vision in June 2012 showing the existing MetroRail commuter line, another commuter line on existing Capital Metro freight track to Manor and Elgin, light rail lines going several directions in the core of the city, and the proposed Lone Star regional line along MoPac and through South Austin (part of a dreamed-of line from San Antonio to Georgetown).

It also had rapid bus routes on it, and the coming toll lanes on MoPac and several other highways, because they will likely host express bus routes. Building all this, officials said at the time, will take decades and cost as much as $4 billion.

That number is already out of date.

So is that first map, it turns out. Which is what I noticed about the map on the “Cluster@#%!” flier. It has light rail extensions I had never seen before: One poking out east from downtown to somewhere near U.S. 183 and MLK Jr. Boulevard and another along South Lamar Boulevard to the Westgate shopping area.

Turns out that transit vision has been refocused a couple of times, adding those extensions and altering an earlier Mueller extension to end it at that neighborhood rather than continuing north to U.S. 290. The latest version, largely reflected in the flier map, was approved by the Austin City Council and the Capital Metro board this summer, officials tell me.

Well, OK. So, that’s the current vision version, which has the distinct political advantage of showing rail going out in every direction, eventually.

But if Proposition 1 supporters are going to argue — as they increasingly are — that the 9.5 miles of light rail and its 18,000 rides a day in 2030 are just the beginning and that you have to start somewhere, then it is equally valid to note that the overall system will be costly. How costly? And who will pay?

Harder to say, and something that Let’s Go Austin does not include in the mailer.

I roughed out the length of the eight light rail extensions shown on the map, which aside from the East Austin, South Lamar and Mueller legs, go up North Lamar, west to Camp Mabry, to near Tom Miller Dam, on South Congress Avenue to Southpark Meadows and out to the airport. I came up with about 30 miles, which would be in addition to the 9.5 miles going before voters now. The estimated cost of the Highland Mall-to-East Riverside Drive starter line is $1.38 billion, or about $145 million a mile.

So, given that the current project includes a river bridge and many extensions wouldn’t, let’s assume $140 million for each of those 30 miles and you get $4.2 billion. The feds would cover, at most, half of that. So, the local share — from property tax-backed debt, Capital Metro, the state of Texas or bake sales — would be more than $2 billion.

But that doesn’t include that Capital Metro commuter rail extension to Manor and Elgin, another 20 miles or so which — based on MetroRail’s cost — would be well north of $100 million (commuter lines on existing track are much cheaper to build).

And then there’s the Lone Star regional line, which just in the metropolitan Austin area would have 50 miles or more. Lone Star’s latest estimates for the overall project — including costs to build a new freight track for Union Pacific well east of Austin to free up the existing track for passengers — is close to another $2 billion. Some of that, if the project ever happens, could be federal or state money as well.

We might eventually get another 100 miles or more of rail in greater Austin, as that map shows. And it could cost well above $6 billion to get it, though the feds surely will chip in some of that. That doesn’t include finding the money going forward to pay annually for train engineers, mechanics, managers, fuel, electricity, track and signal repairs, and, in time, replacement train cars.

So, yes, Proposition 1’s 9.5 miles of rail is only a start. So is the $600 million Austin taxpayers are being asked to pay.

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