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City Council Ponders Urban Rail Financing, Routes

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On paper, the Austin City Council’s urban rail work session this morning was devoted to rail investment options. While the council discussed funding – including a worst-case scenario where the city collected bond dollars, but no matching federal grant – the proposed rail route received another vetting.

Transportation Department Director Rob Spillar started the session by recapping much of the work so far, and some of the reasoning behind the proposal as it stands. For instance, part of the reason rail has been proposed in two phases is due to what Spillar said was a desire to “simplify the overall proposed investment, making it that much more competitive when we go to the federal level.”

Those federal dollars – or lack thereof – were the subject of discussion.

The city hopes the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts funding program could finance half of $550 million cost of the initial rail build. Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole asked what would happen if that match didn’t materialize.

“The question is,” Cole asked city staff, “if we go out in November and ask for the 275 [million dollars], and then we know nine months later, or a year later, that we didn’t receive the … New Starts funding that we were hoping for, is there a way that we could de-authorize the bonds?”

Cole was told it wouldn’t be entirely possible to de-authorize the spending until a future bond election. But City Manager Marc Ott argued that the measure would only give the city authorization to assess extra tax to finance the bonds, not compel the city to do so.

Mayor Lee Leffingwell made an even stronger statement to the same effect. “That would obviously be the clear intent, whenever a bond election occurs – if it occurs this November or some other time – the clear intent would be that this money would never be spent until, and if, we got federal matching funds.”  

Separate from the financing question, the rail route itself was questioned by council member Bill Spelman. Several transit advocates have questioned the alignment of the route, arguing a path going along Guadalupe Street, Capital Metro’s busiest transit corridor (to be served by Cap Metro’s rapid bus service in 2014) would generate higher ridership numbers than the proposed route. (A bird-eye comparison of the routes can be seen above, courtesy of transit blog The Overhead Wire.)

“Are we letting the tail wag the dog here?” Spelman asked Spillar. “Would we as a region be better off if we were able somehow to engineer the authority to build a train on our best routes, and not pick a train on not as good a corridor?”

“A decision, whether it was rigorously done or not, by Capital Metro was made to pursue bus rapid in those corridors and we’ve since got federal funding for it,” Spillar said. “You don’t come by 30 or 40 million dollars very often in terms of a grant, so I really believe we should go ahead and implement what’s there in that corridor and operate it well – and then look at how you could operate urban rail in that corridor.”

The council has a couple more opportunities to discuss rail; a June 26 work session is scheduled to discuss the potential November bond election, including rail, followed by another work session scheduled for August 7. But a decision’s required soon after: in order to call a November bond election, council must act by mid-August.

Wells has been a part of KUT News since 2012, when he was hired as the station's first online reporter. He's currently the social media host and producer for Texas Standard, KUT's flagship news program. In between those gigs, he served as online editor for KUT, covering news in Austin, Central Texas and beyond.
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