Austin City Council places urban rail bond proposal on November ballot

Mary Huber

Austin City Council voted unanimously Thursday to place the bond proposal for a 9.5 mile urban rail line, running from East Riverside to ACC Highland, on the ballot in November.

Subject to majority of voter approval, the proposal seeks $600 million in bonds for urban rail. With the deal, the city will work to obtain $400 million for additional road projects. The city will also apply for Federal Transportation Administration matching funds to bring $1 billion to Central Texas – $600 million to help augment the cost of the $1.38 billion urban rail. The project will not move forward without securing these funds.

Leffingwell said urban rail will cost each Austin household less than $15 per month in a press conference before the meeting.

“Our traffic problem is a big problem, and it requires a big solution,” Leffingwell said. “One hundred and ten people move to this city each day. We don’t have a transportation system to support that growth.”

Austin is ranked the fourth most congested city in the U.S. on the 2014 INRIX traffic scorecard.

The urban rail proposal is a part of Project Connect, a collaborative plan for Austin’s transportation system between the city, Capital Metro, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization and Lone Star Rail. Under the plan, Cap Metro launched the MetroRail and MetroRapid services.

“We feel confident we’ve chosen the best possible option for the first phase of urban rail,” Leffingwell said of the route in an interview with The Daily Texan on Wednesday.

The approved route will run along Trinity Street through downtown and travel on San Jacinto Boulevard through the UT campus. Three of the rail’s proposed stops are on campus at the future site of the Dell Medical School, Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium and on the northeast side of campus.

The San Jacinto Boulevard alignment through campus was recommended by the University to Project Connect through the 2012 Campus Master Plan.

Throughout the rail's planning, some Austin residents and students have advocated the first phase of the urban rail route run along Lamar Boulevard and Guadalupe Street to better serve the University population.

Leffingwell said that an impartial, data-driven process determined the route with the best chance of receiving Federal Transportation Administration funding. He re-emphasized that it would be impossible to obtain federal funds for a rail on Lamar and Guadalupe after $38 million was awarded in 2012 to put rapid buses there.

In addition, Leffingwell said planners are unwilling to face increased congestion by reducing Lamar to a two-lane road to accommodate rail’s dedicated guideway. Project lead Kyle Keahey said the city has set aside $5 million to study transit possibilities for the Lamar corridor.

At the meeting, several people spoke in opposition of the bond because it makes the road improvements a condition for the urban rail bond vote. Others said a comprehensive approach would be most effective.

“There is no other plan,” CAMPO representative John Langmore said at the Thursday press conference. “What is your vision for the future if you vote ‘no’ for this plan?”

This story has been updated to clarify the bond proposal.