Demanding action on urban rail

Drew Finke

“Rail is the future of Austin, as it is the future of every great city in the United States.” This is how Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell characterized his support for the city’s proposed urban rail system during a Twitter Town Hall event hosted by the University Democrats last week. Though Leffingwell made future rail service within the urban core part of his campaign message in 2009, just how far into the future students and other city residents must wait until benefitting from the service remains unclear.


In 2010, Leffingwell published a letter on his website explaining why the city had decided to forgo a November ballot initiative that would have presented Austinites with the opportunity to approve or reject a plan for rail service in and around downtown. A lack of details and lingering unanswered questions pertaining to the proposed rail route were cited as the reasons that ultimately killed the ballot initiative. Two years later, it seems reasonable that the city would have had enough time to reconcile the issues that stopped the initiative in 2010. However, recent reports indicate otherwise.


Last week, The Daily Texan published an article in which a member of the city’s Transit Working Group, city Councilman Bill Spelman, said he thought there were too many “unanswered questions with Urban Rail” and that the group was unlikely to come up with “answers anybody is happy with for the next few months.” Meanwhile, traffic in central Austin continues to get worse as more people move to the city in search of work and more high-density residential projects break ground. Waiting through another election cycle before doing anything meaningful to address growing mobility challenges within the urban core is unacceptable.


Students and faculty who commute to campus by car or bus and are unfortunate enough to have a class scheduled during the morning or evening rush hour will arrive to campus early or stay late to avoid wasting precious time stuck in traffic. Even students who live near campus know to plan their work schedules around the daily standstills on major downtown and campus-area thoroughfares.


While some congestion is an inevitable consequence of living or working in the city, it must not be allowed to threaten the high quality of life Austin residents enjoy. Indeed, Austin’s quality of life is noted in many cases as one of the key elements that attract companies to relocate or establish themselves in Austin, creating new jobs for Austin residents and recently UT graduates alike. With roads and highways already operating beyond designed capacity and little room in which to expand them, a local rail network within the city center is a proven and sustainable solution that has the potential to increase accessibility and mobility in Austin’s increasingly dense urban core.


Though a recent editorial in the Austin American-Statesman declared an urban rail ballot initiative as all but dead on arrival, students and Austinites who want the convenience and connectivity of rail should demand quicker and more decisive action from elected officials who claim to support the vision of a vibrant and walkable city center but who seem to lack the sense of urgency and conviction needed to bring that vision to life.


Finke is an urban studies and architecture senior.