Urban rail project faces delays

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Mayor Lee Leffingwell has pulled his support for the urban rail project set to appear in the November 2012 bond elections, postponing the initiation of the project until a more stable funding plan is identified.

Originally proposed in 2007, the tentative urban rail would include routes to and from downtown, the UT campus areas, the Texas Capitol and the Mueller development area in Northeast Austin. It would require an initial investment of $275 million and does not include yearly operating costs. Leffingwell, who has previously been a strong advocate for the rail, said he intends to only slow down the process rather than halt it entirely. In his June 1 blog, he said he will work for three steps to continue moving forward on the urban rail project, including ensuring the city group working on the project remains active, including funding in the 2012 Austin bond package for an urban rail and hiring an urban rail expert for the project.

Leffingwell’s policy director Amy Everhart said the possibility of raising taxes was a huge factor in the mayor’s decision.

“We have $400 million we can spend without raising taxes,” Everhart said. “The funds committee identified so many needs that it was just going to be a lot to swallow at this time.”

Despite the project being pushed back this year, Everhart said plans for building the rail would still move forward on schedule if construction plans were implemented later on.

“The thing to note is that the plan to have the system built around the year 2019 or 2020 is still what we’re planning for,” Everhart said. “The completion date remains the same.”

Capital Metro spokeswoman Erica McKewen said the company is in full support of Leffingwell’s decision not to endorse the project on this year’s ballot.

“Capital Metro supports the concept of an urban rail and we’ve been part of a collaborative effort that was studying the urban rail,” McKewen said. “We did support the mayor’s decision to slow it down a bit to allow for more time to fully collaborate the proposal.”

McKewen said Cap Metro has collaborated in the Project Connect study, which involves several Central Texas transportation agencies in an effort to increase high-capacity public transportation. The study has shown that adequate public transportation is necessary in areas such as Austin where population growth is rapid, McKewen said.

“Our population is growing and we have constraints because of how our city is built out,” McKewen said. “Therefore public transportation becomes a really critical need and component of being able to sustain the population growth we’re going to be experiencing.”

Civil engineering professor C. Michael Walton said in most cities, the long-term effects of projects such as Austin’s urban rail are often positive after initially being implemented.

“I’ve worked on several [rail systems] throughout the U.S., and each one is an individual effort,” Walton said. “Once it’s in place and operating, people tend to love it and can’t imagine how they got on without it. But it’s a long-term system.”

Walton said beginning the urban rail project is a huge step that should not be jumped into too quickly without prioritizing.

“It’s expensive, no question,” Walton said. “It’s an investment in the future. Whether or not it’s time for Austin to make that investment right now comes down to looking at background information and other priorities.”

Walton said the timing of an urban rail system should be entrusted to those who are fully aware of the city’s options in building the rail.

“Deciding whether or not the timing’s right is really done by those who have the benefit of knowing what the cost and opportunities are in order to make that decision on our behalf,” Walton said. “Once you start the investment, you’ve got to keep making it in order to realize the potential for the whole system.”