Light Rail

This November, Austin voters will decide on one of the biggest expenditures in city history: a $1 billion proposal for a new starter light rail line and state road improvements. 

Caleb Bryant Miller for KUT News

The Austin City Council will consider Thursday whether to authorize an agreement with Capital Metro to spend $5 million for urban rail planning. The bulk of the money ($4 million) will come from a federal grant that requires a local match of 20 percent ($1 million).

So why spend such a large sum when previous money hasn’t produced any visible results? That was a question raised by council member Bill Spelman at council’s work session Tuesday. “A lot of people are concerned that we are putting the cart before of the horse,” he said. “We are spending four million dollars when we really haven’t decided what to do”.            

In May, the city released recommended routes for the first two phases of Urban Rail. Robert Spillar is the director of the city’s Transportation Department, and he sees the release of the money as the next step. At Tuesday’s work session he said getting the city’s stamp of approval would allow the Transportation Department to “restart” the alternatives analysis. 

Photo by Daniel Reese for KUT News

Mayor Lee Leffingwell announced on Friday that he opposed putting urban rail funding before voters in 2012 – a move that effectively nixed rail’s funding chances in the November bond election, and raised another round of hand wringing over transportation solutions for Austin. KUT News spoke with Mayor Leffingwell shortly after his announcement.

KUT NEWS: I doubt there was any one variable that lead you to your decision, but what were your reasons?

Lee Leffingwell: It’s a whole bunch of things coming together, but underlying it is, we have not yet answered some of the basic questions. We might have an answer prior to November, but time is running short to get the complete picture in place and to be able to go out and market it. Because you don’t just put this on the ballot and go away and hope for the best. You’ve got to really present it to the public. There’s a full education process that goes on with something like this. You have to go out and explain it to people.

Image courtesy Austin Transportation Department.

The City of Austin Transportation Department says the first phase of a new urban rail system should run from the convention center downtown, through the UT-Austin campus, and on to the Mueller neighborhood.

In a memo released today, the department also laid out a path for a second phase going south of the river. That route would head south from the convention center, across Lady Bird Lake and then run along East Riverside Drive to Pleasant Valley road.

The memo doesn’t have cost estimates for either route. The Austin City Council will take up the recommendations and cost estimates during two upcoming work sessions. On May 22, it will hear a conceptual funding plan, then on May 29, the council will hear a Transportation staff-recommended “next investment.” 

Daniel Reese

As if awaking from a two year hibernation, a sub-committee of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) held its first meeting this afternoon with a new leader and new members. The Transit Working Group (TWG) was restored in time to prepare for Austin’s soon-to-come vote on an urban rail system.

The working group was first established in 2007 under Austin Mayor Will Wynn. He decided the city needed an urban rail or street car system. But nothing really came out of it. Now, Mayor Lee Leffingwell is leading the TWG.

“The big difference between this group and the one of that before is our focus is going to be regional,” Leffingwell said.

People got a chance to climb aboard the possible future of Austin's mass transit system on Thursday. Kinkisharyo, a Japanese-based streetcar manufacturer, is taking its new prototype on an American tour.

The streetcar runs on a combination of power from batteries and overhead wires, storing energy when the train brakes and eliminating the need for overhead wires in parts of the route, Kinkisharyo project manager Bill Kleppinger said.

Image by KUT News/Mose Buchele

It was a packed house at Austin City Hall this morning, as Mayor Lee Leffingwell gave his state of the city address.  KUT’s Mose Buchele reports a lot of what the mayor talked about could be labeled, "Coming Attractions."

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