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Austin urban rail plan nixed by pro-rail neighborhoods, advocates

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Austin, Texas — In an extraordinary reversal of political alignments, rail transit advocates, and inner-city neighborhoods considered most supportive of urban rail for this Central Texas city, appear to be lining up to oppose an official urban rail plan favored by city officials, the local transit agency, and a government consortium called Project Connect. (Disclosure: This reporter, a transportation planner, also serves as a technical consultant to one of the pro-transit groups opposing the official plan.)

The proposal, priced at $1.4 billion, would build a 9.5-mile electric light rail line stretching from a moribund shopping center called Highland Mall in the north central part of Austin, eastward and southward to a southeastern terminus in the East Riverside area, distinguished by clusters of moderate-price apartments inhabited by a high proportion of college students. In between, trains would travel through a $230 million tunnel, then in mixed traffic past several older neighborhoods parallel to I-35. The line would then thread through the East Campus of the University of Texas (UT), through downtown, and across the Colorado River on a $130 million "signature bridge", before joining East Riverside Drive and reaching its terminus.

Opponents say that's not a route relevant to most Austinites. Many rail supporters prefer a route along the central north-south axis of the city, a corridor following Guadalupe St. north, then North Lamar Blvd. The corridor is rated among the 100 most heavily traveled arteries in Texas, and it also serves the West Campus area next to UT, the third most densely populated neighborhood in the state.

Critics say the substantial cost of the Project Connect line is not justified by the projected performance, and the Guadalupe-Lamar route would attract much higher ridership for significantly lower cost. According to a report in the website Austin Rail Now, at $119 million per mile, the Highland-Riverside line would be the third most costly urban rail project, per mile, in U.S. history. Project Connect says its plan would require a major property tax rate increase to support general obligation bonds to fund the local share of the project.

Interviewed as a transportation planning expert in a segment broadcast on May 28th by the local NPR radio station, KUT-FM, I asked, "Why would a city our size put in something that is so pricey on a very weak route?" Referring to Guadalupe-Lamar, I pointed out that "The main travel corridor is in the center of the city ... That's where it needs to go."

Project Connect estimates the Highland-Riverside project would carry an average of 16,000 riders each weekday. “This proposal is a great start to offering alternatives to sitting in congestion” said Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, a key backer of the plan, in a recent TV interview.

However, supporters of the Guadalupe-Lamar urban rail alternative emphasize that there's currently no congestion in the proposed Highland-Riverside route. Scott Morris, treasurer of Our Rail PAC, which opposes the Project Connect proposal, argued the project would cost too much and serve too small a population.

Quoted in a recent issue of the local Community Impact newspaper, Morris said Our Rail would rather see urban rail run in the Lamar-Guadalupe corridor because of much higher ridership potential. He cited data from a 2000 project study forecasting as many as 37,400 daily riders on that route by 2025 — more than double the 16,000 of the Highland-East Riverside route.

“We need an expandable backbone as our starter line” Morris emphasized. “The first investment will need to pay for other expansions.”

In the KUT interview I focused on the advantages of the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, noting "that's where the activity is; that's where the travel is; that's where the rail needs to be...."

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