How soon to get Austin’s urban rail on track after Nov. 4th?

11 October 2014
Graphic: LifeHacker.com

Either the Highland-Riverside urban rail plan or a Guadalupe-Lamar plan will need several years to be ready for federal approval. Graphic: LifeHacker.com

By Dave Dobbs

How quickly can Austin get another rail proposal on the ballot if Proposition One fails on Nov. 4th? Pass or fail, I think any rail proposition that would be ready for federal funding is at least three years out — i.e., 2018, considering that the new 10-1 council gets up and running early in 2015.

If Proposition One passes, the new council would have to deal with the political mandate of $400 million of road funding — most likely, in Certificates of Obligation (COs). And given the nature of COs, meant for emergencies, not for general obligation (GO) situations, the oxygen in council chambers is going to be consumed as new council members (a) hear from the public pro and con and (b) recognize that large city indebtedness limits their ability to expend funds for many other needed things (particularly their own priorities and campaign promises), while at the same time setting the stage for even more debt for a controversial rail project that will surely necessitate giving up a quarter cent of Capital Metro’s sales tax they now collect.

Assuming that the issue of COs could be settled in a year’s time and the city could begin selling bonds to fund the detailed planning necessary to qualify for federal funding, it will still take two to three years for the federally mandated steps necessary to get back into line for federal funding. Remember, when Project Connect switched the destination from Mueller to Highland, the current project on the ballot lost its place in line. (Council members knew this when they placed Proposition One on the ballot.) Considering that federal funding is highly competitive, with something like 50 U.S. cities doing some kind of urban rail planning in pursuit of federal dollars, Austin’s current project (supposedly with 18,000 daily riders) for $1.4 billion is simply not cost-effective or cost-competitive.

Now if Project Connect still has some funds left from the $5 million allocated from CAMPO’s SMP-MM grant and what the Council provided in 2013, and Prop. One passes, then rail planning for Highland/Riverside could go on while council thrashes about trying to deal with the $400 million in COs. Nonetheless, it would still be 2018 before any Project Connect plan would be ready for federal consideration and the ridership and the project won’t be any better.

If Proposition One fails, then the new 10-1 council will be able to get organized and set its own priorities, one of which would be to disconnect Project Connect, along with its funding, and then assess where the community goes with Capital Metro, transit priorities, rail planning, and what role the city, itself, has in all this. Hopefully, any funding that is left from Project Connect could be held in abeyance until Council agrees to set up a new public study process that has real public input and gives public stakeholders ownership. Right now, Capital Metro has been so poorly used by politicians and the private political agendas the politicians represent, that we need to have a community discussion about what transit’s role is in the future and who does what.

The city and the transit authority, after all, have to agree upon how to use the limited assets we call the public streets. We have to decide whether streets are for people (pedestrians, bikes, and transit) or sewers for cars. While some of our elected officials piously claim we can’t give up automobile travel lanes for rail on Guadalupe and Lamar, the CAMPO plan (its Capital Metro elements) projects dedicated bidirectional busways for MetroRapid on all of the best potential rail routes in the city by 2025.

Overhead view of MetroRail on Main St. at Preston. Photo: Houston Metro.

Houston’s MetroRail light rail transit system runs on dedicated tracks on Main St., re-allocated from traffic lanes. Photo: Houston Metro.

Given the undeniable need, now becoming patently obvious to most of the attentive public, that something must be done in the core along the Guadalupe/North Lamar corridor, the new Council will be under enormous pressure from most of the Project Connect supporters and the loyal opposition pro-rail supporters to begin anew looking at a rail proposal that has the right combination of route, ridership, capital cost, and O&M numbers that gets the most bang for the buck. Again, we’re looking at 2018 before any plan could be completed and eligible for Federal Transit Administration funding.

The difference between passing and failing is, of course, funding — i.e., Austin’s local match for a federal grant. While both Proposition One proponents and the loyal opposition pro-rail supporters agree that a local match is essential, the contention that a November bond failure means “another 14 years” before we can visit the issue again, or that a 10-1 council will be unable to agree on where to begin, are arguments for people with an agenda and those who are flying backward to see where we’ve been. ■



  1. Excellent analysis, Dave! I agree, there is no reason that the voters should accept the argument that a “no” vote will necessarily cause a decade-plus delay in funding, much less construction.

    A negative vote, if followed immediately by action by the new council to establish a sound public plan

  2. Excellent analysis, Dave! I agree, there is no reason that the voters should accept the argument that a “no” vote will necessarily cause a decade-plus delay in funding, much less construction.

    A negative vote, if followed immediately by action by the new council to establish a sound public planning process, may not appreciably delay the arrival of light rail where it’s needed, and may be sooner. Emphasis on where needed. Meaning, when it will actually make much of a difference.

    I’m convinced that prop 1 will actually set back by a decade or more the achievement of one of prop 1’s stated goals: reducing congestion on city streets and highways. It will divert a large amount of money to a low-performing (non-)solution, while allowing the preferred solution to languish.

    As a burgeoning city of potentially world class (at least in some respects) Austin needs to get out of its inside – dealing way of politics, and get serious about planning for the future in a small-d democratic way that involves a large number of citizens and ensures full and equal representation of people of all income levels, cultural backgrounds, and ability levels. And it must be grounded solidly in cutting-edge smart growth policy and best practices. And the presentation of the project to the voters must be free and clear of highway pork and other embellishments that distract voters and policy makers from the focus on providing sustainable alternative transportation. From what I know therequrequirements wewere ignored or given lip service. I hope the voters see and understand this.

    In 25 days we’ll know whether the voters see through the scam.

    By the way, why did Sierra Club endorse prop 1? I have seen no explanation from them on their website.

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