Urban rail’s first line should go from downtown north on a corridor roughly defined by Red River Street and, in a surprise, southeast on East Riverside Drive as well, city of Austin and Capital Metro staff recommended Friday to a committee mulling the issue.
The recommendation, though not binding, had been much anticipated by rail officials and supporters as likely to determine what rail route emerges and goes before voters next year.
The staff of Project Connect, formed two years ago to take a fresh, regional look at Central Texas transit possibilities, relegated the two corridors expected to emerge at the top — the Guadalupe Street/North Lamar Boulevard area and Mueller in East Austin — to a later phase of rail.
However, the Red River route, what the rail staff calls the Highland corridor, includes much of the area that has been included in previous maps showing rail going to Mueller. And it would allow rail to pass near the coming University of Texas medical school on Red River Street and through UT on university officials’ preferred route, San Jacinto Boulevard.
While the Project Connect recommendation will have to go through several more steps on the way to a possible November 2014 city bond election, it does make it highly likely that the Highland and East Riverside areas, along with the university and downtown areas in between, will be the preferred location for the city’s next phase of passenger rail.
However, Kyle Keahey, a consultant working as the rail director for Project Connect, acknowledged that finding the money to go both north and southeast of downtown in a single project might be difficult. Going from Highland Mall to South Pleasant Valley Road on East Riverside, including what would likely be a new bridge over Lady Bird Lake, could cost close to $1 billion, based on past city cost estimates. At most, half of the project cost would come from federal grants, meaning that the city and any potential partners might have to come up with a half-billion dollars to build all of Friday’s recommendation in a single stroke.
Keahey said that one area, Highland or East Riverside, might have to take priority over the other, but that the staff has done no such ranking thus far. The group also considered other corridors running from downtown, including South Congress Avenue, East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and South Lamar Boulevard.
An advisory committee, formed and chaired by Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, should act on the recommendation in early December, and the Austin City Council, Capital Metro board and the board of Lone Star Rail District, which is planning a commuter rail line from San Antonio to Georgetown, likely will weigh in by June. Between now and June, Keahey said, the staff will get specific about a route, stations, how to raise the money and how to govern this new phase of transit. The group will consider other forms of transit for the recommended corridors, but it’s highly unlikely that it will choose anything but rail.
The most crucial vote would come by the council in August, when it likely will decide whether to ask city voters to approve several hundred million dollars of borrowing to build a starter line.
The eastern route to Mueller for an electric-powered rail system in the city’s core was first proposed by Capital Metro staff in 2006, but failed to gain traction as the transit agency struggled with financial problems and with completing its MetroRail commuter line. That 32-mile commuter train project — which was built mostly on existing railroad tracks and uses diesel-powered, self-propelled cars — opened almost four years ago and has weekday ridership well under 3,000 boardings.
The city essentially took over the electric rail project in 2007, and in 2010 it produced a 16.5-mile, $1.3 billion recommendation for a system that included the Mueller leg. But city leaders balked at putting that proposal before voters in 2010, 2011 and 2012, and last year initiated (along with Capital Metro) a second look at urban rail. In the meantime, some rail advocates began to argue that the Mueller route would have poor ridership and that going up Guadalupe and North Lamar would be better.
In public meetings that Project Connect conducted in recent weeks, the Guadalupe/North Lamar and Mueller corridors emerged as the clear favorite in straw poll votes. But Keahey said that the staff didn’t consider a “popularity contest” or even current ridership potential to be controlling factors. Which areas of the city are teed up for future development also matters, officials said.
“It’s not just about existing ridership today,” Keahey said. “It’s also about population growth, employment growth.”