Monday, August 31, 2009

Austin, Texas, eyes expansion of passenger rail

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The future of downtown rail - for right or wrong, better or worse, for whatever it turns out to be - is now firmly in the City of Austin's hands, writes Ben Wear in the Austin Statesman. Capital Metro, carrier of the passenger rail flag around here for more than 20 years, will still open its MetroRail commuter line (sometime soon). And conceivably the agency could be hired to operate a rail line built by the city. But Capital Metro, nearly out of money and tarnished by its halting MetroRail performance so far, won't be the prime mover.

The city, meanwhile, in three weeks will seek bids for preliminary engineering on a proposed streetcar-light rail line running from the Mueller development in Northeast Austin, through the University of Texas and downtown, then southeast along Riverside Boulevard to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. The goal is to have a "15-to-20 percent plan" and a solid cost estimate by spring, according to Gordon Derr, the city's assistant transportation director.

Which would then lead to asking voters next year to approve bonds for a first phase of the line (along with bonds for road and bike-pedestrian projects around the city) from just east of Interstate 35 (on Manor Road) to the Seaholm tract downtown. Which means the city is getting serious about the project.

This handoff of rail responsibility has been in the works for a while. Former City Council Member Brewster McCracken was the first person I heard talk about it. The idea didn't gain traction at first. But McCracken, joined by then-Mayor Will Wynn, started pushing hard for it in late 2007.

The problem then, as now, was figuring out how to dig up more than $600 million to lay in-street tracks, build crossings over the river, I-35 and U.S. 183, buy electric-powered train cars and rig a network of overhead wires.

McCracken and others talked of drawing money from a variety of sources, including the city, Travis County, UT, the federal government and private sources. Then came the deep recession, with the attendant squeeze on local government budgets, and downtown rail talk lowered to a whisper.

The squeeze is still on, which raises questions about where the city in a tight budget year is getting $5.6 million for the rail studies (which include environmental clearance and a federally required "alternatives analysis" of the Lady Bird Lake crossing) and a separate analysis of the city's overall transportation needs, which went out for bids 10 days ago. Ironically, the money is coming from Capital Metro, after a fashion.

Money promised to the city years ago by Capital Metro, which was to pay for a couple of street projects, will pay for the studies instead. The road projects will still get done using money returned to the city from the Texas Department of Transportation after costs for tollway land purchases were under estimates.

The plan now is for the city to pay for the central section (with the bond money) while applying for federal funds to build the outlying pieces. If all goes as planned, you'll get your say on all this in November 2010.

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