Project Connect’s gold-plated Austin urban rail plan shows planning process way off course

15 August 2014
Graphic: GG2.net

Graphic: GG2.net

By Lyndon Henry

The following comments were made during Citizen Communications to the City of Austin’s Urban Transportation Commission on 10 June 2014 regarding Project Connect’s proposed 9.5-mile, $1.4 billion urban rail starter line connecting East Riverside (southeast) with the Highland ACC site now under development (north). In the end, the commission voted, with minor amendments, to recommend Project Connect’s proposal to the City Council.

There are three huge problems with Project Connect’s proposal:

(1) It spends $1.4 billion to put urban rail in the wrong place.

(2) It will hinder and constrain future rail development.

(3) A vote for this flawed plan is also a vote to permanentize lower-capacity MetroRapid bus service in our strongest, densest travel corridor, Guadalupe-Lamar.

Guadalupe-Lamar is the outstanding corridor to start urban rail — among the top heavy travel corridors in Texas, a long-established commercial district, with major activity centers, the city’s core neighborhoods, and the West Campus, having the 3rd-highest residential density in Texas.

In contrast, Project Connect proposes to forsake the central city’s heaviest and densest local corridor and instead connect a weak corridor, East Riverside, with a non-existent travel corridor through the East Campus, Hancock, and Highland. By wasting over a billion dollars on urban rail in this meandering, misguided route, Project Connect will divert scarce funds from future rail development.

Project Connect’s Riverside-East Campus-Hancock-Highland plan comes “gold-plated” with a new $130 million “signature bridge” over the river and a $230 million tunnel at Hancock. But it runs in mixed street traffic from UT to Hancock. This is a proposal that costs too way much for too little value.

And it’s the third most pricey urban rail starter line, by cost per mile, in U.S. history. City officials now routinely propose a major property tax increase to finance the local share of Project Connect’s plan.

Per mile of route, proposed Highland-Riverside urban rail plan would be second most expensive light rail starter line since 1990, and third most expensive in U.S. history.

Per mile of route, proposed Highland-Riverside urban rail plan would be second most expensive light rail starter line since 1990, and third most expensive in U.S. history. Graph: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)

Voting for Project Connect’s urban rail plan for East Riverside to Highland also means voting to pour concrete for bus lanes and other bus facilities on Guadalupe and Lamar that will prevent an urban rail alternative in our heaviest, neediest corridor for decades. The current MetroRapid bus service on Guadalupe, Lamar and South Congress carries 6,000 daily riders, less than one-eighth of the 51,000 forecast for light rail in that same corridor.

According to a report yesterday from a private meeting of urban rail “stakeholders” at Capital Metro, representatives of both Project Connect and Capital Metro admitted that Phase 1 of this project, which conjured up Looney-Tunes voodoo and passed it off as “scientific” projections, was “too fast and not at a pace they would typically have proceeded.”

In contrast to major rail planning in the past, the public has basically been cut out of this process. Now Mayor Leffingwell and his administration announce they’re tossing in a dollop of road projects that even some councilmembers criticize as failing to fit into the Imagine Austin concept of a walkable, dense city. In effect, they’re packaging a dubious, wasteful rail project with questionable road projects, and wrapping a “congestion relief” ribbon around it.

This is a planning process that’s gone off course and out of control. This commission needs to do the right thing, and say as much to the city council. ■

Related links:
Project Connect’s $500 million plan for bus infrastructure — The Elephant in the Road on Guadalupe-Lamar that could block urban rail
Project Connect’s Austin urban rail would be 3rd-most-pricey LRT starter line in U.S. history
Roger Baker: Austin’s ‘Strategic Mobility Plan’ — smart planning or a billion dollar boondoggle?


  1. City Council has put the question on the ballot to voters ONLY for $600M for Rail. Voters are not being asked to approve $400M for Roads. Language of the Ordinance and Thursday’s Resolution gives decision making responsibility on the $400M for Roads to the City Council, that could be the current Council or the next 10-1 Council. The $400M for Roads is a condition before the funding for rail can move forward, even if voters approve of Rail on Nov. 4. The other condition before rail can move forward is equal match in funds for Rail from the Federal Govt.

    Current Council could pass $400M in Certificates of Obligation approval right now, but then there would be no reason for voters who only want Road funding to vote for Rail. More likely current Council are kicking the can down the road to the 10-1 Council to address the $400M for Roads.

    The 10-1 Council could either pass $400M in mismatched Certificates of Obligation for Roads, which do not require voter approval, or pass something less than $400M in CO’s for Roads and thereby delay funding for Rail (condition not met until $400M), or put the $400M for Roads on the 2015 or 2016 Ballot in more appropriate form of General
    Obligation Bonds for voter approval.

    Today’s City Council SPECIAL CALLED MEETING heard a non-binding Resolution which did not actually change anything and which leaves intact Deceptive Ballot language giving voters the impression that they are voting on $400M for Roads, which THEY ARE NOT. See:

    8/7 Ordinance & Ballot Language: http://www.austintexas.gov/edims/document.cfm?id=213995

    8/14 Resolution: http://austin.siretechnologies.com/sirepub/mtgviewer.aspx?meetid=603&doctype=agenda

    Background on Certificates of Obligation:

    Austin’s current outstanding balance of Certificates of Obligation are $166 Million out of $5.2 Billion in total debt. $400M additional would more than Triple Austin’s outstanding balance of CO’s.

    A Certificate of Obligation is a form of debt available to governing councils originally intended in cases of emergency that need immediate action without time for voter referendum. For example, when a hurricane destroys the police and emergency services building, there is no time to go through the process of voter referendum. The local council must be able to borrow the money to set up provisional buildings and necessary equipment for police and emergency services so that the community is served in continuity.

    When used as intended, Certificates of Obligation (CO) are necessary in the continuity of civil society. In researching state and local debt, groups all across the nation are learning that the intent of Certificates of Obligation have been abused, with state and local officials assuming debt for non-emergency needs without the need of taxpayer approval.

  2. […] • Project Connect’s gold-plated Austin urban rail plan shows planning process way off course […]

  3. […] subway for which the need was in dispute. As a result, the plan would have calculated as the third most expensive LRT starter line in U.S. history. And that massively wasteful encumbering of local funding capability would have, in effect, […]

  4. […] — a drawback captured in a commentary I presented to one of the planning groups, with the revealing title “Project Connect’s gold-plated Austin urban rail plan shows planning process way off […]

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