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UT should pay for East Campus urban rail — not Austin taxpayers

2 September 2014
Project Connect map showing half-mile radius from proposed urban rail stations. Except for a mainly commercial and retail sliver along the Drag, most of high-density West Campus residential neighborhood is beyond station access radius.

Project Connect map (annotated by ARN) showing half-mile radius from proposed urban rail stations. Except for a mainly commercial and retail sliver along the Drag, most of high-density West Campus residential neighborhood is beyond station access radius.

By Lyndon Henry

The following comments were made during Citizen Communications to Project Comnnect’s Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG) on 13 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). Ultimately, the group voted to recommend Project Connect’s proposal to the City Council.

Since 2006, UT has insisted on a San Jacinto route that would bolster its development aims for the East Campus. However, the West Campus is where the people are, with the third-highest residential density in Texas. It’s where the heavy travel flow is, and where most activity is clustered. And the FTA-required half-mile demographic “watershed” around proposed urban rail stations on San Jacinto barely touches the eastern edge of the West Campus. (See map at top of this post.)

Meanwhile, although insisting that its East Campus development program must be served by Austin’s urban rail, the UT administration has not offered a dime to fund it. Instead, they’ve happily assumed that Austin taxpayers can obligingly be squeezed with higher property taxes to pay for this amenity.

There’s a “reverse-Robin-Hood” aspect to this. Because of shale oil extraction on Permanent University Fund lands, according to a San Antonio Express-News report last year, “The University of Texas System is rich. … Oil is the reason why.”

The UT system is awash in money to the tune of a billion dollars a year, boosting UT Austin’s share to a total of nearly $200 million. Profits from football and other athletic entertainment bring in another $78 million a year.

While there are certainly various needs for this money — particularly the need to keep tuition costs affordable — and some constraints on how it’s used, it would seem logical and fair that, if UT desperately wants urban rail in the relatively less dense, less active San Jacinto route, UT should dip into its own resources to pay for it.

An East Campus-Medical School alignment could be installed as a branch from the Guadalupe-Lamar alignment proposed as an alternative to Project Connect’s plan. UT could cover the $45 million local cost in five years by modest annual dollops of $9 million from its abundant revenues.

This compromise alternative could buttress the feasibility of urban rail and increase the benefit to the entire Austin community. But UT’s administration needs to stop trying to soak Austin taxpayers, and take responsibility for funding its fair share of what it wants.

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15 comments

  1. Why are transit projects, especially rail transit projects held to a higher bar for acceptance? On a normal basis we never ask for private donations to build roads or streets, we never question in such excruciating detail operating costs. So why are you all so anti giving people choices on mobility?


    • All major public projects need to have funding sources. The Prop1 urban rail project ignores an obvious beneficiary — the University of Texas administration — and seeks to place the burden of funding solely on Austin taxpayers for a rail line with little mobility value that is aimed at bolstering UT’s East Campus expansion plans.

      As for “giving people choices on mobility”, we have the distinction of having led the effort, over decades, to offer important mobility choices for Austinites — especially rail transit. We do not, however, favor misguided projects such as Prop1 urban rail that ignore critical mobility needs and instead seek to benefit merely private real estate interests (and the “businesslike” campus expansion interests of UT). Prop1 will hinder, rather than facilitate, crucial mobility choices.

      — ARN editor
      ..


  2. Hmm.

    West Campus people don’t need to ride the rail to class. It makes more sense if you look at it from a standpoint of bringing in students from more remote locations.

    The concept of restricted funding seems foreign to the author of this article.

    The athletic department is self-contained and does not either take money from general university funds nor is it required to transfer profits back to the university’s general funds, although it does distribute some profits back to the academic departments.

    Permanent University Fund monies can only be distributed per the 1876 Texas Constitution and subsequent amendments, which I’m reasonably certain don’t include urban rail projects.

    Anyway…

    Everyone wants a Guadalupe/Lamar route they say, but the costs of right-of-way acquisition would be extremely high as compared to other alternatives.

    The people that oppose any rail whatsoever are surely loving the debate that is going on right now within the rail supporting community about the present proposal. Until the people who support rail come together behind a proposal, there is no chance of overcoming the “oppose at all costs” crowd. This I fear is the disposition of the current initiative.

    Who knows how long it will be until the next opportunity comes up. Will that opportunity also dissolve in the face of infighting between rail proponents?


    • UT has been able to fund major infrastructure projects, crucial to its functioning, such as parking lots, parking garages, street improvements, and the rebuilding of Speedway through the campus. We believe that the UT administration is capable of finding a relatively small proportion of its budget to fund the East Campus (and medical school) rail line it regards as so important.

      The major alternative to the Prop1 urban rail plan — a Guadalupe-Lamar light rail starter line — is discussed in numerous articles on this website. This alternative, and the expansion of viable transit in this city, will require a commitment to reallocating street space to provide adequate dedicated rights of way to expedite and prioritize public transport services of all kinds.

      — ARN editor
      ..


      • I am opposed to the Guadalupe portion of the route regardless of what UT is doing because I believe it will not be possible to incorporate rail without taking away ROW currently allocated to pedestrians and cyclists.


    • Adequate and safe facilities for both pedestrians and bicycle travel would be included as an integral component of any design for light rail in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor that we would support. With at least 5 lanes of street space available through the Guadalupe section of this corridor, plus opportunities for acquiring additional right-of-way, plus options for a light rail track alignment on parallel streets, there is more than sufficient right-of-way for light rail, sidewalks, bike lanes, and traffic lanes.

      This corridor clearly is the most heavily traveled local arterial corridor in the center-city; it serves the highest residential density, plus robust commercial activity, and 31% of Austin jobs within a half-mile radius of potential stations. Guadalupe-Lamar certainly merits the application of creative design resources and investment necessary to install the infrastructure for a light rail system, as well as for pedestrian and bike facilities, that has been envisioned and planned for several decades.

      — ARN editor
      ..


  3. Can you clarify what this means:
    “The UT system is awash in money to the tune of a billion dollars a year, boosting UT Austin’s share to a total of nearly $200 million.”


    • The UT system includes universities and other entities throughout the state, with UT-Austin being the largest. The proportional share of the UT system’s increased revenue, for UT-Austin, is roughly 20%.

      — ARN editor
      ..


  4. There will never be a perfect project and there will always be people who benefit from infrastructure. So, the mentality of all us austinites is since I don’t get mine therefore no one should get it. We need to unite and move forward. This is more about Austin’s future then today. Please remember that. You must start today what you need in the future. Don’t short side all of Austin because we try to find perfection in solutions. Solutions have gives and takes and good solutions are those that are implemented not those that just sit on the shelf.


    • There will never be a “perfect” project, but there will be projects that can be justified and those that cannot. The Prop1 plan fails this test miserably. It should give a clue that the most dedicated, intrepid, and knowledgeable rail transit advocates in Austin are opposing the Prop1 rail proposal.

      Rest assured that a “unity” urban rail proposal that does make good sense is being discussed and developed, and will emerge from this process.

      — ARN editor
      ..


  5. Why shouldn’t developers and companies pay for roads?

    This assumption that the government has limitless supplies of cash to build roads to support every new structure continues to be a mantra to many in the real estate and construction industries.

    But its a mantra that we have to start challenging.

    The United States has always relied largely on gasoline taxes to pay for roads and infrastructure and repairs. The result has been sprawl and transportation chaos. As long as a developer can build on any cheap land they want and get free roads and infrastructure in return, there is no incentive for that developer to care about where their project fits into the transportation puzzle. Attempts to fix this problem, like requiring transportation studies or insisting developers chip in for infrastructure needs on corridors, have been met with howls of outrage.

    Unfortunately, our funding model is now failing us. Cars have become more and more efficient, using more miles of road while paying far less for gas. Meanwhile electric cars and programs like car-sharing are beginning to chip away at the very market that pays this tax. As sea change begins to cause havoc with our oil refineries in the next 25 years, we will see gas prices rise even further and then this funding model will completely break down.

    At some point, we are going to have to move past the bandaid of toll roads, and start finding new ways to fund our roads and pay for infrastructure and repairs. And since this same funding model also pays for multimodal transportation in Texas, I, for one, am glad that this author and others are starting to ask the hard question: Is the the fix to make growth pay for itself?

    -Mary Rudig
    editor, North Austin Community Newsletter

    http://www.lovenorthaustin.com


  6. “However, the West Campus is where the people are, with the third-highest residential density in Texas”

    And how many of those _students_ commute _downtown_ during rush hour?


    • Not all of them are students (more non-students staying in West Campus now than ever before); students actually work other places (I commuted with some on the 98x buses for years); and the West Campus ‘front door’ represents the key destination for everybody working at UT (the one they prefer when given a choice).


      • Yes, I’m sure a bunch of full time students living in west campus are commuting downtown at 8 in the morning and then back at 5.

        They have these little things called “classes”.

        Yes, students have jobs, but they’re much more likely to be off peak or split-shift or nighttime than 8-5 weekday.


  7. […] to Far West and to East Riverside for years. Do they need a rail line to do the exact same thing? UT should pay for East Campus urban rail ? not Austin taxpayers | _______________Austin Rail Now Putting so much money into connecting East Riverside to downtown and the UT Medical School–it […]



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