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Searching for More Specifics on Austin's Urban Rail Proposal

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? 

That’s a question that’s been on the minds of local transit advocates and some of those directly involved in the urban rail process, like Julie Montgomery.

"Since the very beginning, we've been pressing Project Connect for both their data and their methodology for arriving at their estimates,” says Montgomery, who represents a group called Austinites for Urban Rail Actionon the city's Central Corridor Advisory Group. That panel of officials, business representatives and citizens will likely vote todayon whether or not to recommend Project Connect’s rail proposal to the Austin City Council. "There's no reason to think that Project Connect's extremely high aspirational estimates for the growth around Highland Mall is realistic whatsoever,” Montgomery says.

“If they did their homework like they said they did, all that info is there,” says Jace Deloney, a local transit advocate and member of the Urban Transportation Commission who has followed the rail proposal process closely. “The question is, did they do their homework?”

On Thursday, Project Connect said they would release the data and methodology for their ridership, operating and management cost estimates, as well as a summary for their capital cost estimates. But as of this morning, that information has still not been shared with the advisory group or with the public. And even if it is released in the hours left before the advisory group meets, it isn’t enough time for folks like Montgomery or outside observers to assess them.

Project Connect maintains that they never received any formal request for the numbers and methodology.

"We became aware of some chatter on Twitter that wanted to see that and we wanted to respond to that, so we've been working hard on pulling that together and now it's ready to be made available,” says Kyle Keahey, a vice president at the civil engineering firm HNTB, and the lead for the Urban Rail program at Project Connect. "Our objective throughout this whole effort has been to have an open and transparent process,” Keahey says. “That sometimes challenges us on the technical team. Because we want to make sure our information is correct."  

Project Connect has dismissed local transit advocates' concerns as being in the minority, and has said that they've taken issue with the process because the proposed first line doesn’t run to their neighborhood. “We understand a handful of Lamar/Guadalupe route advocates are passionate in their beliefs, but it’s important to note that the current project is a starter line with opportunities to expand the system over time to many other parts of town, including Lamar/Guadalupe,” Project Connect said in a statement earlier this week.

That statement was in response to an earlier KUT story about an inaccurate flyer being handed out in the Hyde Park neighborhood, where opposition to the proposal is expected. The original flyer, labeled ‘Proposed First Line of Urban Rail,’ showed rail going up Guadalupe and Lamar, which is not part of Project Connect’s final proposal for the first rail line. An updated flyer was quickly prepared by Project Connect, but it stilldoes not appear to be entirely accurate.

Overall, Project Connect has $270,000 budgeted for “education and outreach” about the proposed rail project, with additional funds ready if they’re needed. Project Connect says that money comes from a federal grant.

A concern of some transit advocates about the rail proposal likely to take a big first step today is that it could hurt other parts of Austin’s developing mass transit system. If the high costs (and lengthy approval and construction) stress Capital Metro’s budget, it could hurt existing bus and rail routes, some of which already have very high ridership.

That’s one point of criticism with the rollout of Capital Metro’s “Metro Rapid” bus, which resulted in one existing heavy-ridership line having its frequency cut in half. Now ridership along that corridor is actually down. The new “rapid” option costs more, with stops father apart, and doesn’t have a schedule. It also shares bus lanes with non-”rapid” bus routes, which can slow it down.

Some local transit advocates, like Montgomery, worry that if the first line of urban rail gets bungled, which they argue has happened with previous Capital Metro projects like the MetroRail red line and MetroRapid, it will suck up all the capital and political will needed to expand it further. Now, they’re pushing Project Connect and the City Council to consider another option: a true rapid bus system, known as BRT, with dedicated lanes, along the proposed route for the urban rail line.

“It’s less risky,” says Deloney of the rapid bus option. “It’s an honorable alternative.”

But Keahey of Project Connect says that’s a non-starter. The urban rail proposal has about double the capacity of a true rapid bus option, he says, and the cost of that rapid bus option would still be over a billion dollars. For instance, it would still need a bridge to cross Lady Bird Lake, according to Keahey. 

The rail advisory group meets today at 1:30 p.m. at Austin City Hall. As of the time this article was published (11:30 a.m.), Project Connect had not released the data and methodology for their ridership and operating cost estimates.

Montgomery of Austinites for Urban Rail Action says she thinks the rail proposal before the advisory group today will pass, but she's planning to vote against it. From there, it will likely be a few weeks before it ends up before the City Council, and then perhaps we'll see it on the ballot this fall. Federal funds for half of the project’s $1.4 billion cost wouldn’t be sought until a few years later. In all, it could take nearly a decade until the first urban rail line is up and running.

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