City council approves urban rail planning funds

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Capital Metro will begin a $5 million, three-year planning process for an urban rail project after Austin City Council unanimously approved the funds Thursday.

Austin Urban Rail, a division of the city’s transportation department, already has a proposal in place for the rail system. The first phase in the proposal includes a 5.5-mile, mostly north-south route that runs through downtown and makes stops at UT. The first phase of the project would cost $550 million, according to Austin Urban Rail.

According to transportation department documents, half of the initial $5 million will go to planning the physical layout of the rail, $1.2 million will go to surveying the land, $1.1 million will go to an environmental impact survey required by the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act; $205,000 will go to public outreach initiatives and $122,000 will pay administrative fees.

Robert Spillar, Austin Transportation Department director, said although no official decisions have been made, the rail is tentatively planned to make three stops on campus along San Jacinto Boulevard.

If the rail is completed as planned, he said it will increase access to commercial centers and medical facilities at St. David’s Medical Center and University Medical Center at Brackenridge.

The first phase of the route will run from downtown to the Mueller neighborhood in North Austin. A second phase of the project will run from downtown to South Pleasant Valley Road.

During the meeting, council member Chris Riley asked Spillar if planned routes could be amended or moved. Spillar said they could be amended during the project’s public outreach initiatives, which will begin in January.

The city plans to begin operating the rail in 2021, Spillar said.

Will McLeod, an Austin resident and former San Antonio mayoral candidate, spoke during the meeting and said he does not support an expanded rail presence in Austin when Capital Metro operates bus lines. He said he does not believe citizens will use the rail when they have access to automobiles and bus lines and believes the funds should be used to fix roads and sidewalks.

“We can’t afford to fix our streets and sidewalks,” McLeod said. “Well, here’s the money right here. It’s going towards a choo-choo train that no one wants to ride.”

Capital Metro will provide $4 million from a Federal Transit Administration grant, and the remaining $1 million will come from the Austin Transportation Department’s 2012-2013 budget.

Capital Metro currently operates MetroRail, which runs partially along Fifth Street downtown and through East and North Austin.

Printed on Friday, October 12, 2012 as: Cap Metro receives electric rail funding