Austin Urban Rail proposal has support, uncertainties

Bobby Blanchard

The city will gain either a new medical school or an Urban Rail initiative depending on how Austinites vote on two competing proposals.

City Council member Bill Spelman said he believed the medical school proposal is largely ready when compared to the many unanswered questions on the Urban Rail initiative.

The Urban Rail initiative will connect the Metro Rail route and the planned Lone Star Rail District and give people a broader range of travel options in the city.

“It’s my impression the medical school proposal is largely ready,” Spelman said. “There are a bunch of unanswered questions with Urban Rail, and it’s going to take us some time to answer.”

However, Spelman said there are still uncertainties about this initiative, which need to be addressed before they can put the proposal before voters. While a vote on public funding is happening on Nov. 6, Spelman said the Urban Rail initiative likely will not be ready for voters in 2013.

“I think Austin voters are likely to support both projects if we bring a vote before them and the projects are ready to go,” Spelman said. “I think the real question is ‘what is ready to go?’ I think it’s a good chance we are not going to have answers anybody is happy with for the next few months.”

Spelman said the City Council needed to find out how to pay for the Urban Rail initiative, exactly how much it is going to cost and whether or not the city receives expected federal funding.

“We also don’t know who is going to operate it,” Spelman said. “We don’t know how much it is going to cost to operate it. And these are pretty big questions and until we get good answers to those questions it seems improper to put it before the voters.”

Spelman is part of the Transit Working Group, a group that provides information about the project to the public and coordinates efforts between the parties involved.

“A lot of what we’ve been doing up to this point is clearing the decks,” Spelman said. “We are making sure that not just the council has seen most of these presentations.”

Spelman said the Transit Working Group is also composed of people from other jurisdictions and people from the private sector.

“A whole bunch of people are represented here who really need to buy into the idea and a lot of them are hearing it for the first time,” Spelman said.

Spelman said they were expecting to hear back from a consultant in April who will provide information about planning and expenses.

“Depending on what those answers are, we all may jump for joy and say ‘this is it, we got it’,” Spelman said. “But I suspect that we probably know we will have to talk about it a little more.”

Biomedical engineering senior Stephen Nabinger said a medical school would have a more positive impact on the area than the Urban Rail initiative.

“Our public transportation is pretty well developed,” Nabinger said. “I think a medical school would spark growth.”

Biology freshman Hannah Nguyen said she would like the opportunity of staying in Austin and studying at a new medical school.

“I think I would prefer staying in Austin,” Nguyen said. “I really like the environment here.”

Spelman said when they get all the information they need, he does not think it will take long to get everyone on board.

“I think it’s possible that all those folks who are involved in the transit working group will come to the consensus pretty quickly that this is a good idea,” Spelman said. “There is also a very good chance that they are going to talk about it some more and I wouldn’t want to second guess what is going to happen.”

Printed on Monday, February 6, 2012 as: Austin will choose between rail, school