City planning needs student involvement

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Going to school in the center of an exciting and growing city makes the UT experience unique among Texas’ public universities. But along with growth come growing pains — traffic, most notably — which cause the glamour of urban life to fade. To make Austin more accessible and to keep pace with comparably sized cities, we need a rail transit system that can effectively and efficiently connect the densest and most vibrant parts of the city, and students need to be involved in the planning that is necessary to make this happen.

Plans to build an urban rail system similar to those in Houston and Dallas have been in the works since the mid-1990s, yet no tangible progress has since been made in Austin’s center. In March 2010 Capital Metro opened the Red Line, a 32-mile commuter rail service that brings suburbanites into downtown Austin. But congestion in downtown and near campus necessitates a rail service that can move people around the city’s urban core.

On April 24 Student Government unanimously approved a resolution that asks the city to better involve students in the planning process to bring the city just such a rail line. 

The resolution raises concerns about a 2012 proposal that planned for rail to run through the UT campus along San Jacinto Boulevard, a route that is too far from the density of activity and residents along the western edge of campus. The resolution endorses a rail line along or near Guadalupe that would “directly serve students in their home communities, by building through the heart of residential student density.”

The resolution further demands “additional public input concerning the proposed urban rail program in the form of a Citizen’s Advisory Committee or an additional formal process that includes a student voice.” Such a student voice has been missing from prior urban rail initiatives in Austin.

The Urban Land Institute, a city planning think tank, issued a report in February that specifically calls for University students to be engaged as stakeholders in the planning process for Austin’s future urban rail. Student Government’s City Relations Task Force can provide a sustained student voice at City Hall, but more students must get involved in order for our voices to be heard by city policymakers.

Jace Deloney, co-founder of Austinites for Urban Rail Action and a commissioner on the city’s Urban Transportation Commission, spoke on behalf of the resolution during the April 25 Student Government meeting. In his presentation, Deloney recalled that at a recent community meeting regarding the urban rail project, “one of the comments we received was that ‘just because a bunch of UT students who don’t vote want a certain route doesn’t mean that it is the optimal one.’” Deloney described the comment as a call to action for students who care about the city in which they live.

Students should absolutely care about Austin. After all, the city is our home for at least four years — sometimes longer, if you’re lucky enough to find a job in town after graduation. In the past two years, students have shown that their voices can lead to results. John Lawler, a former Student Government representative who also advocated for the resolution, pointed to successful student-led campaigns to get a cycle track built along Rio Grande Street and to reduce the number of new parking meters in West Campus as recent examples of how students can effect change in the city.

According to new census data, the UT campus and West Campus are among the most densely populated census tracts in the state. Failing to link these neighborhoods to a new rail system would be a disservice to the students who live there — all of whom contribute to the city’s property tax revenue every time they mail their sky-high rent checks.

With this in mind, we welcome the city planners to our campus to discuss students’ goals for a future urban rail system, and we support Student Government’s efforts to put more student voices in the ongoing dialogue about urban rail. We think students contribute a lot to what makes Austin great — both in the money we spend and in the youthful energy we contribute — so it only makes sense that we would play a role in what is potentially the most transformative investment the city will make in the near future.