Urban Rail

Jeff Heimsath for KUT

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.

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT

Earlier this year, Austinites got a warning from their mayor: Pass a proposed light rail line, or face certain doom. There was no "Plan B," voters were told. 

"Here's the basic equation," Mayor Lee Leffingwell said in his State of the City address, "Rail or fail." 

Austin voters chose the latter option this election, saying "No" to a billion-dollar light rail and road improvements proposal by a wide margin, 57 percent voting "No" and 43 percent voting "Yes." The proposal garnered a lot of interest, with 15,000 more Austinites voting on it than on the race for Mayor of Austin.

Contrary to what you might have heard, this was technically the first time a rail plan has been voted down within city limits. So what happened? How did a supposedly progressive, typically bond-approving city electorate shoot down something so strongly?

Austin's Rail and Roads Bond Defeated

Nov 4, 2014
Jenna VonHofe/KUT

After years of false starts and changed plans for light rail in Austin, voters have decided against a billion-dollar plan that would have brought the city its first light rail line and hundreds of millions of dollars in road improvements. 

Rail hasn't been on the ballot in Austin for ten years (though it did come close), so there was a lot of anticipation about this vote. If it had been approved, a billion dollars in all would have be taken on in city debt, $600 million to partially pay for a starter 9.5 mile light rail line and $400 million for improvements to state roads aimed at easing congestion. (For a detailed explainer on the proposal, we've got you covered.)

The final tally of votes had the proposal losing by a wide margin, with 57 percent of voters saying "No" and 43 percent voting "Yes." That's a 14-point loss for the light rail and roads proposal. (By comparison, in 2000, a light rail proposal in Austin was defeated by a margin of less than a point.) Overall, more people voted on the rail and roads proposition than did in the race for mayor (nearly 15,000 move votes in all). Voters in the urban core voted to pass the measure (map below), but they were outnumbered by voters outside of the urban core that voted against. (You can view an interactive map and see how your precinct voted here.)

Project Connect

Update, Nov. 5: Austin voters decided against the light rail and road improvements proposal, commonly known as Austin's 'Prop 1.' The final tally of votes had the proposal losing by a wide margin, with 57 percent of voters saying "No" and 43 percent voting "Yes." That's a 14-point loss for the light rail and roads proposal. 

Original story, Nov. 4: It's the biggest debt proposal in Austin history, and it comes to a billion dollars in all: $600 million of it for a starter light rail line, with $400 million for improvements to state roads.

There's a lot to unpack here, and plenty of debate on the merits of this transportation proposal. So here it is, the (hopefully) last explainer you'll need this election for Austin's rail and roads proposition, featuring our reporting over the many months (and years) leading up to today's decision. 

Project Connect

Read our full explainer on the light rail and roads proposal here

A big-ticket item on the ballot in Austin this year is the $1 billion proposal to build a starter light rail line and improve state highways in the area.

The proposition, popularly known as Austin's Prop 1 (but on the ballot listed as 'Proposition, City of Austin'), has been a matter of much debate and a perennial talking point for those campaigning in city elections.

In the audio explainer below, KUT's Jennifer Stayton sits down with KUT reporter Terrence Henry, who's been covering the proposal, to talk about what's at stake, and what happens next, pass or fail.

Spencer Selvidge/KUT News

Disclosure: Project Connect and Capital Metro have been supporters of KUT.

Fifteen years from now, someone in Austin is going to get to say, "I told you so."

If voters approve a starter light rail proposal next week and it's built, by 2030 it's supposed to reach full steam, with some 16,000-18,000 trips per day (or roughly eight to nine thousand passengers a day). 

There has been a lot of debate about this proposal, even by Austin standards. A lot of that has been about the route of the line. The plan is to borrow $1 billion. $400 million would pay for some road improvement projects around Austin. The rest would partially pay for a 9.5 mile line that would run from East Riverside, through downtown and the UT campus, and terminate in the area around Highland Mall.

But let's step aside from the route for a moment, and think about the tool. What if, instead of a light rail line, we opted for a Rapid Bus line instead?

Jeff Heimsath for KUT

Last night, KUT's Views & Brews partnered with the Austin Monitor at the Cactus Cafe to take a look at the past, present and future of transportation in Austin.

From roads, to buses, round-a-bouts to rail, guest host Michael Kanin of the Austin Monitor spoke with some of the historians, policy makers and analysts in town, including the Director of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Texas at Austin Dr. Chandra Bhat, political consultant Mark Littlefield, Greg Hartman of the Let’s Go Austin political action campaign supporting Proposition 1, Roger Cauvin of Austinites for Urban Rail Action, which opposes the plan.

You can listen to the entire discussion below.

flickr.com/dborman2

This fall, Austinites will vote on a $1 billion bond package for a light rail line and state road improvements. Austin's bond proposal is a long one, clocking in at 220 words, and it's an expensive one.

What's behind those numbers? Let's take a look:

How does the price tag of this bond stack up to previous bond elections?

It's the biggest ever. While only $600 million of the bond election is technically voter-approved for a starter light rail line, the other $400 million in improvements for state-managed roads is still debt that will be taken on by the city.

So what does that billion dollars pay for?

$600 million will go the capital costs (studies, engineering, and construction) for one 9.5-mile light rail line, with a total estimated capital cost of $1.38 billion. That line would go along East Riverside, through downtown and the UT campus on San Jacinto, then go over or under (and parallel) a portion of the existing MetroRail line up to Highland Mall. The project would be contingent on getting federal matching funds for the city's $600 million investment.

$400 million would go to road improvements for state roads.

A billion dollars sounds like a lot of money. How much debt does Austin have currently?

Jeff Heimsath for KUT

Austin voters are facing two major decisions this November.

First, Austinites will elect a new city council from brand new geographic districts, and voters will also decide whether to borrow $600 million to build a light rail line.

But, with so many City Hall hopefuls running on Prop 1-bashing stump speeches, what happens if voters approve the measure, and the next council has to implement policy they’ve sworn against?

Spencer Selvidge/KUT News

This November, Austin voters will decide on one of the biggest expenditures in city history: a $1 billion proposal for a new light rail line and road improvements. It’s not the first time light rail has come before Austin voters: 14 years ago, in 2000, rail was narrowly voted down. How and why that plan failed has informed the latest plan voters will decide on this year.

If the light rail plan had passed back in 2000, one thing’s for sure: Austin's transit network would look very different today. The 15-mile line would have gone from Ben White and South Congress through downtown on Guadalupe and Lamar, all the way up past Parmer Lane. Think of it this way: if it had been built, you could have a burger at Hopdoddy on South Congress, then hop on a train up to Anderson Lane and Lamar, where it'd be a short hike or bike ride for another burger at the other Hopdoddy.

"2000 was kind of a pivotal moment, I think, in planning for rail transit in Austin," says Jeff Wood with The Overhead Wire, a transit consulting firm in San Francisco. He's studied the 2000 vote closely. "You had this huge election, and George Bush was on the ballot, and it lost by less than 2,000 votes."

While a slight majority of voters within city limits cast ballots in favor of the plan, the vote was in all of Capital Metro's service area at the time. Suburban voters were seen as pivotal in defeating the measure. That failure has informed the proposal Austinites are considering today.

How? To start with, just take a look at the name. 

Photo by Callie Hernandez for KUT News

This Election Day, Austin voters will decide on the largest single bond proposal in the city’s history. A little more than half of the $1 billion bond package would go towards a light rail line, the other half for road improvements.

Supporters say the package provides a solution to Austin’s traffic, but some wonder if building out more mass transit and expanding roads is really going to make a dent.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/mrlaugh/6705429685

A major transportation plan took a significant step forward Thursday when the Austin City Council voted unanimously to put it on the November ballot.

It’s a billion-dollar proposition. Voters would agree to a $600 million bond for a 9.5-mile urban rail line, contingent upon two conditions: matching funds from the Federal Transit Administration or another federal or state source, and a future city council securing $400 million dollars for road projects. The ordinance does not specify a source for the additional $400 million.

Project Connect

By a unanimous vote – Austin city council endorsed a package of proposed transportation projects Thursday night, including a $1.4 billion dollar urban rail line

The Austin City Council limited public comment on urban rail to 30 minutes for each side, which angered some public transit advocates who support the concept of urban rail but reject the proposed route of the plan. 

Project Connect

A proposal to build a $1.4 billion urban rail line in Austin faces a key vote today in the city council. The 9.5 mile urban rail line would run from Riverside Drive and Grove, through downtown to Highland Mall.

Supporters of the plan say that route is going to see a lot of growth over the next few years. Opponents wonder why it’s not going in where things are already happening. Like, along Lamar or Guadalupe.

Project Connect

Capital Metro voted Monday to move forward with recommendations from Project Connect. The next steps are deciding who will govern its potential urban  rail operations and where some of the funding will come from. The City of Austin and Capital Metro are both major players.

But while Project Connect moved a step forward, there was a push from the Cap Metro board to take a step back.

After dozens of public meetings and no shortage of criticism, Project Connect arrived at a proposed route for its urban rail that would go from Riverside to Highland Mall. On Monday, Capital Metro Board Chair Mike Martinez asked for analysis on a whole new route, from Austin-Bergstrom International to UT.

Project Connect

The Austin City Council and the Capital Metro Board met today to learn more about a proposed urban rail route that needs approval from the council – and ultimately, Austin voters. There are still concerns about how to pay for the project.

Project Connect is looking at adding rail, buses and other options to the transit system in Central Texas. But the project's proposed plan for downtown Austin is still contentious because it favors a route that would bring urban rail through East Riverside and up to Highland Mall at a cost of almost $1.4 billion.

Project Connect

A proposed urban rail line is one small step closer to becoming a reality after a panel of local officials, business leaders and citizens voted overwhelmingly to recommend the $1.38 billion proposal. The Central Corridor Advisory Group voted 13-1 in favor of Project Connect's 9.5 mile plan.

"The last time we put this option before voters was 14 years ago," Mayor Lee Leffingwell said. "I've been conscious all along that we had to put a good and appealing project before the voters. I think this recommendation will do that."

The lone dissenting vote was from public transit advocate Julie Montgomery of AURA. Among her concerns is that parts of the proposed route are not in areas where urban rail is in high demand. 

Project Connect

Disclosure: Project Connect is a sponsor of KUT.

When was the last time you were at Highland Mall? For many Austinites, the retail ghost town isn’t on their hot list of places to hang out. But city planners are counting on that to change, and they’re willing to place a bet on it, to the tune of $1.4 billion.

That’s the estimated price tag for the urban rail line recommended by Project Connect, a group of regional transit agencies working on mass transportation. To justify it, Project Connect has projected explosive growth around Highland Mall, at a rate much faster than the city of Austin as a whole is projected to grow over the coming decades.

How did Project Connect come up with these numbers? 

Project Connect

Disclosure: Project Connect is a sponsor of KUT. 

Update: Project Connect has issued a new flyer. Scroll to the bottom of this post to read it. 

Original story: If you were out and about in Austin this weekend, you may have met someone from the outreach team of Project Connect, a multi-agency group working on mass transit options for the region. In an effort to promote a series of meetings regarding an urban rail proposal that will likely end up before voters this fall, the outreach team was passing out flyers showing the proposed first rail line in Hyde Park. But those flyers don’t accurately show what that proposed line is, and now one neighborhood advocate is accusing Project Connect of misleading the public.

A few hundred Austinites got a flyer (above) from a Project Connect outreach team this weekend showing its overall long-term transit vision for the city. At the bottom right corner of the flyer, a big orange bubble screams, “Let’s Get Moving!” The flyer shows rail to the airport, rail along the major corridors of Lamar and Congress, and along the MoPac freeway. In essence, rail lines that have the potential to replace lots of cars on the road. The map is titled "Proposed First Line of Urban Rail." There is no legend indicating what the various routes depicted are. 

But if you were to actually pass out an accurate map of the proposed first line that voters may decide on this fall – which in its latest iteration would run along East Riverside, through downtown and tunneling under and then paralleling a portion of the existing MetroRail line up to Highland Mall – it would actually look very different.

Project Connect

Some die-hard public transit supporters say Austin’s 9.5 mile, $1.38 billion urban rail proposal is misguided, too expensive, and follows a poorly traveled route

"Why would a city our size put in something that is so pricey on a very weak route?" former Capital Metro board vice president Lyndon Henry says. "This is insane."

Project Connect

Austin officials unveiled plans today for the city's first urban rail line.

The 9.5 mile long line would run along East Riverside Drive and turn north near the Austin-American Statesman building, cross Lady Bird Lake via bridge, continue through downtown and the University of Texas and end at Highland Mall. The plan also calls for four park & ride areas, two each toward opposite ends of the line.  

The project cost is estimated at $1.38 billion. Officials with Project Connect, the working group of city, Capital Metro, and other regional transportation officials that made today's recommendation, say they believe the federal government would pay for half of that estimated cost.

Texas Archive of the Moving Image

Austin is inching its way towards the creation of a possible new rail line.

Later today, Project Connect, a group of regional transportation officials including the City of Austin and Capital Metro, is widely expected to unveil a proposed route for urban rail.

The announcement is a further refinement of preliminary findings tapping the East Riverside and Highland Mall regions as prime corridors for investment – a finding many Austin transit advocates found fault with. Once set for the ballot by the Austin City Council, citizens will vote on whether to approve rail funding in an election this November. 

A rendering of upcoming changes to Auditorium Shores.
City of Austin

In its final meeting of the year, the Austin City Council approved a full slate of items.

Among the measures passed was a decision restricting where dogs are permitted at Auditorium Shores. More than a dozen speakers took to the council floor to argue against the change, which would prohibit dogs from lingering on the so-called "Event Lawn" on the east end of Auditorium Shores.

Parks and Recreation Director Sara Hensely said the department took community suggestions under advisement when revising the $3.5 million plan for the parkland. But under a new amendment, dogs are only allowed on the event lawn when traveling from a parking lot to the neighboring areas where dogs are allowed. (No one on Parks staff or the City Council bothered to explain just how that would be enforced.)

Wells Dunbar, KUT News

Disclaimer: Project Connect is a KUT sponsor.

Update: The Austin City Council unanimously endorsed two locations for urban rail last night: the Highland Mall region and East Riverside. You can watch citizen testimony and council action on the recommendation.

As KUT reported, investment in those corridors was proposed by Project Connect – a working group of City of Austin, Capital Metro, and other regional transportation officials.

Project Connect named Highland and East Riverside after what it said was a robust, data-driven public input process – but many rail advocates present at the vote last night questioned the process and the decision.

Original story (Dec. 12): To hear Project Connect tell it, they’re practically drowning in data. Project lead Kyle Keahey cited some 45 different measures of information and 11 indices when the group announced its recommendation. (You can look at lots of that data here.)

Project Connect

The group advising the city on urban rail has come out with initial recommendations: a transportation investment that runs from the East Riverside Corridor, through Downtown and out to the Highland Mall region.

As KUT previously reported, the recommendations began by dividing Central Austin into 10 subcorridors – similar to compass points pointing out from a center, including Downtown and the UT campus.

In the end, they chose two subcorridors for investment: Highland and East Riverside.

Project Connect

Now’s your chance to name the parts of Austin that should be served by urban rail.

This week, the City of Austin and its transportation partners are inviting the public to name the subcorridor that would benefit the most from urban rail.

Planners at Project Connect, the team coordinating the city’s rail and regional transportation efforts, have identified 10 subcorridors within central Austin. Not counting downtown’s core, they are (in clockwise order): Lamar, Highland, Mueller, MLK, East Austin, the East Riverside Corridor, South Congress, South Lamar, West Austin, and Mopac. 

notevenpast.org

It's no secret that traveling through Austin comes with a price: traffic.

However, the way Central Texans commute could change by the turn of the next decade as the region seeks a potential solution to traffic: urban rail.

flickr.com/leelefever

Austin doesn’t have urban rail – but it’s already suffering from an identity crisis.

That was one big takeaway from a presentation by urban planning experts on how Austin can get a rail project up and running.

Austin is one of four U.S. cities chosen as part of an Urban Land Institute fellowship focusing on urban issues. The participating cities each chose a focus issue for a year-long study – and Austin chose rail.

Callie Hernandez for KUT News

If you’ve ever wondered why a bus line stops at a certain place, or why some parts of town have more transportation options than others, this week Capital Metro has been having a series of open houses to answer those kinds of questions. Residents have shown a lot of interest in plans for urban rail.

Urban rail is still in the planning stages. But the first phase is expected to go from the downtown Convention Center through the UT campus and on to the Mueller neighborhood.

California Rail Map, Alfred Twu

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell has promised a public vote on an urban rail system before he leaves office. Considering Austin was just ranked the fourth worst U.S. city for traffic congestion, that news could make for a lot of happy commuters.

Meanwhile, a California group envisions a national high-speed rail system that could transport a person from any major city to another in hours. And this vision has Austin as major train connection hub.

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