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Council Member Asks: Are Urban Rail Plans 'Putting the Cart Before the Horse?'

Caleb Bryant Miller for KUT News
An prototype rail vehicle on display in Austin. City leaders are wrestling with whether to make another rail investment.

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. 

The first phase of urban rail is 5.5 miles. It would start downtown and go up to the Mueller development, with additional stops downtown, at the Capitol Complex, and UT. While that basic route may not change, the reboot of the alternatives analysis could re-examine specific streets the route may use.

The money may also be used for completing an environmental study, a rail ridership study and more. Spillar promised a detailed breakdown of expenditures at council’s next meeting, this Thursday, Oct. 11.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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