Urban Rail back on track under new leadership

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After delays in the planning process, Austin’s Urban Rail initiative is back on track with a new leader set on getting the project going at full steam.

The Urban Rail is a project that aims to connect areas around UT campus and downtown Austin by rail network as an addition to the current MetroRail Red Line. Last week, Capital Metro hired Kyle Keahey to lead the project, said Linda Watson, Capital Metro president and CEO. Watson said Keahey, who currently works for the planning and construction firm HNTB Corporation, has worked on projects similar to the Urban Rail for 30 years. Keahey intends to have an analysis of the work already completed on the rail done by May 1 in order to lay out a time line for future milestones in terms of planning and funding, Watson said.

According to the Urban Rail website, the first phase of the rail is projected to cost $550 million, half of which is expected to come from municipal bonds and half from federal sources.

“There’s still a lot of planning work that needs to be done,” Watson said. “What we have done just with the hiring of this position is just to kick-start the planning process to kick it up in high gear to move it to a point where there’s enough information to get it to the voters for a vote next year.”

The currently published rail alignment extends from the Mueller development through UT campus and downtown and reaches south to the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Watson said this alignment may change as a result of public input and alternative ideas being presented. 

In both 2010 and 2012, the Urban Rail was pulled from the bond packages by Mayor Lee Leffingwell because of uncertainty in plans for funding and management of the rail, according to a blog post written by Leffingwell in 2012.

Jared Wall, civil engineering graduate student and president of the UT chapter of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, said voter-granted funding for the rail could be substantial. Wall said the rail would be easy to sell to voters because it may solve congestion issues in the face of increased employment and population in the city.

Billy Fleming, community and regional planning graduate student, said implementing the rail with voter-approved funds makes sense but would require more effort on the part of rail proponents.

“We don’t bat an eye at asking the kind of money we’re asking for this with an overpass that moves a lot less people a lot less fast,” Fleming said. “In my opinion, this is kind of a no-brainer. Hopefully whatever kind of campaign there is in the future [for funding] does a better job of communicating that.”