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Commission Adds Weight to Light Rail Efforts

Caleb Bryant Miller for KUT News

From the AustinMonitor: The Urban Transportation Commission has once again given a boost to advocates for light rail in Austin.

At its meeting last week, the commission voted unanimously to recommend that City Council consider putting bonds for “rail options” on the November ballot.

Recognizing that there is a “vocal and organized group of people” advocating for light rail, Commissioner JD Gins introduced the resolution by saying, “I’d like to give these folks the opportunity to say the UTC said, ‘You should at least listen to our pitch.’”

The UTC passed a similar resolution in February that urged Council to direct City Manager Marc Ott “to develop and present a high-capacity transit plan, including consideration of rail” in time to consider putting it on November’s ballot.

Since then, however, the city has been engaged in the Mobility Talks initiative, a public input program that has spent the past several months gauging residents’ preferred transportation priorities. The Mobility Talks findings will likely be used by Council to determine what kind of bond proposal, if any, it will put before voters.

Light rail is one of several contenders being pushed by various activists. Bike Austin has already scored encouraging signs of support from several Council members in its endorsement of a bond initiative that would fully fund the 2014 Bicycle Master Plan as well as the construction of high-priority sidewalks around schools and transit stops. The UTC has also recommended to Council that it consider that plan, which has an estimated price tag of approximately $411 million.

On Friday, Bike Austin’s Miller Nuttle told the Austin Monitor, “I think rail should be a critical part of solving Austin’s long-term transportation crisis. I also think biking and walking are critical, too, and that’s something we can do now given that the plans have been thoroughly publicly vetted. All they need in order to be actualized is capital funding.”

Before considering Tuesday’s resolution, the commissioners heard from Andrew Clements of the Central Austin Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit that has put together a detailed proposal for a light rail route that would stretch from the North Lamar Transit Center down to Pleasant Valley Road and William Cannon Boulevard.

“Of all the things that are being considered, I think light urban rail will have the most impact on mobility,” Clements said. “I strongly support the bike master plan and the sidewalk plan, but I think that, at best, those are going to have single-digit impacts on ride-share mode splits. And I believe light urban rail will have the biggest bang for the buck.”

Clements explained that the city could put up a bond of approximately $465 million to fund a starter segment of the line from Crestview Station to Republic Square Park in downtown Austin. He said that federal money to complete the route would be easier to secure once the city has an operational segment.

If Council opted to put light rail on the November ballot, it would defy predictions made in the wake of the disastrous showing of the 2014 Rail and Roads Bond that rail would be off the table for another 10 years. Indeed, the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority has effectively mothballed light rail planning after the 2014 route proposed by the Project Connect initiative lost so badly. Any Council activity on a November bond notwithstanding, that could soon change.

In a statement sent to the Monitor on Friday, a Capital Metro spokesperson said, “For rail to succeed, smart planning, a sound funding strategy, and the support of the city and community must all be in place. In late September, Capital Metro will be launching the Project Connect Central Core study, where the primary goal is to develop pragmatic transit solutions to improve travel into and within downtown Austin.”

In the meantime, Austin Transportation Department staff will brief Council on its Mobility Talks findings during a special budget work session on June 1. The Council Mobility Committee will then consider bond proposals at its June 14 meeting, which will also feature a public hearing on the topic. Council won’t be legally able to set the official November ballot until August.