Light Rail Proposal Joins Mobility Bond Discussion

Jun 3, 2016

From the Austin Monitor: As City Council members careen toward their first chat with the public over a potentially massive mobility bond, a new proposal for light rail investment has risen up from the grassroots.

On Thursday, the nonprofit Central Austin Community Development Corporation announced that it had shared with Council members its vision for a 5.3 mile, $397.5 million route that would connect Crestview Station on North Lamar Boulevard to Republic Square Park in downtown Austin.

“Mayor (Steve) Adler declared this the ‘Year of Mobility,’” the CACDC’s Andrew Clemens told theAustin Monitor. “If we’re serious about making the November bond issue about mobility, we’ve known for 40 years that the best place to put our initial light rail line is on Guadalupe and North Lamar.”

The proposed route would be the initial segment of a longer line that would eventually stretch from north of U.S. Highway 183 down to Pleasant Valley Road and William Cannon Boulevard, according to a map drawn up by the CACDC. The line largely parallels the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s three highest-ridership bus routes — the 1, the 803 and the 7 — which had a combined average of nearly 20,000 weekday boardings in spring 2015.

Credit CACDC

  CACDC, which says it based its plan on a “data-driven study” developed by the research firm Civic Analytics, predicts a daily ridership of 37,400 on its initial segment. That’s nearly 20,000 more boardings-per-day than was predicted for the light rail route packaged with road projects into a $1 billion bond that Austin voters resoundingly rejected in 2014.

That rail proposal, whose controversial route lost it the support of many vocal mass transit advocates, was pitched by its supporters as a do-or-die referendum. Indeed, then-Mayor Lee Leffingwell summed up the arguments for it with the pithy phrase, “Rail or fail.”

Clemens told the Monitor that as soon as that proposition lost, he and his fellow activists began working to get a fresh proposal before Austin voters in time for the next election.

“Council Member Ann Kitchen has said this bond needs to be more about moving people than moving vehicles,” Clemens told the Monitor. “The fact is that light rail is the most efficient way to move people.”

Unlike the 2014 proposal, whose $600 million worth of rail money was hoped to be matched by federal dollars, this new plan would move forward without outside help.

According to the CACDC’s press release, “Building the initial investment without seeking a (Federal Transit Administration) full-funding grant agreement will shave years off the process. Houston’s successful starter line was also quick-start funded with 100 percent local funds.”

Houston’s METRORail opened in 2004 with an average daily ridership of just over 12,000. The system has since grown its network and in April averaged nearly 60,000 boardings per day.

The CACDC’s work on behalf of light rail, however, could be for naught thanks to inactivity on the part of one of the more important participants in local transportation policy: Capital Metro.

“My understanding is that Capital Metro is not ready to start discussing light rail again,” Council Member Delia Garza, who also sits on the transit agency’s board of directors, told the Monitor on Thursday. She suggested that the conversation could be resumed later this year when Project Connect, the partnership between the city and Capital Metro that produced the 2014 proposal, renews its focus on central Austin later this year.

Also working against the grassroots rail proposal is Council’s accelerated time frame to decide whether to hold a bond election at all. According to city staff, the typical bond development process takes up to 18 months. This time around, though, Council’s sudden interest at the beginning of the year cut that timeline in half.

At Wednesday’s work session, Council members heard the formal presentation of the Mobility Talks survey, a rushed public outreach effort begun in March. That same meeting also featured several bond scenarios similar to a $720 million package floated by Adler a week before, which would fund a variety of road, transit, bicycle and sidewalk projects.

Several Council members expressed skepticism if not outright opposition to the idea of asking voters to weigh in on a plan that might not seem fully cooked. Garza told the Monitor on Thursday that she still has several concerns and added, “I still need to digest the plans.”

Council’s Mobility Committee could potentially make a bond recommendation as early as its next meeting on June 14. Despite that quickly approaching decision deadline, and despite the lack of any acknowledgement of rail from the mayor, city staff or Capital Metro, Clemens told theMonitor that he’s hopeful the CACDC plan will get a fair shake. He noted that the Urban Transportation Commission and the Zoning and Platting Commission both this year endorsed light rail as a consideration for a November bond.

Clemens also suggested that 2016 will be the best shot light rail has for the next four years. “Obviously,” he said, “the conventional wisdom is that the rail referendum is better to go before voters in a presidential election year.”