Austin Urban Rail Would Be An Alternative To Traffic Not A Panacea

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The battle for the narrative on Austin's urban rail proposal is being fought out as much with in the pro-transit community as it is with those who oppose it all together.

The stakes are high, as it remains unclear how a new 10-1 City Council may address future transportation investments if voters turn down rail in November. Add to the pressure pot the lingering sting of losing by less than 1% that many advocates still remember from 14 years ago.

On Wednesday I attended a media tour sponsored by CapMetro to visit the proposed rail route from East Riverside to Highland Mall. The tour included one of rail's most vocal proponents, Mayor Lee Leffingwell.

Read about the route and how the plan is being pitched below the jump… View a larger map here.

At various stops along the way we heard from different stakeholders on why they supported the rail project. They included representatives from the Downtown Austin Alliance, the University of Texas at Austin, Austin Community College, and the Capitol Complex.

There is a noticeable difference in the way politicians and policy wonks talk about the need for rail. Politicians and those generally tasked with selling the idea to the public focus on “traffic,” while policy bureaucrats and those urbanists who have a vision beyond cars talk more of “mobility.”

It's not a difficult concept to understand, but it presents a different way to look at the problem and it happens to be at the root of why some “advocates” of rail would rather see this train never leave the station.

Some groups, such as AURA, say a route along the city's densest corridor of Guadalupe-Lamar would have a greater impact on mobility. Those empowered to make the decisions don't seem to be in complete disagreement but consistently maintain that their proposal for federal assistance is made stronger by the route along the prefered growth corridor to the East.

CapMetro says the proposed route is better suited to capturing $700 million dollars in federal transportation money than Guadalupe-Lamar because the City just completed a federally assisted project for Rapid Bus along that corridor.

Another point of contention between the idea of addressing “traffic” vs. “mobility” is where the rail line will cross Lady Bird Lake. Project Connect and its stakeholders chose to construct a new bridge connecting Riverside south of Lady Bird Lake to Trinity on the north side. They said using an existing bridge that has car traffic would take away two lanes, which was unacceptable.

The City Council unanimously endorsed the proposed route, and added some road projects to the mix that will increased the overall ask of Austin taxpayers. Most of the projects address highway interchanges and high-traffic choke-points. Some advocates I have spoken to see the addition of road projects as a way to increase support for rail, while others as a way to directly address congestion.

Ultimately no one is claiming that this $1 billion plus plan will actually give Austin the complete relief it desires from our choking traffic problems — rather, the bond will serve as a foundation for a more comprehensive transportation network for the region.

Most local elected officials are on board with the plan, including Rep. Celia Israel, who was deeply involved with the Alliance for Public Transit before she was elected to the Texas Legislature. It is also significant to point out that the route doesn't ever cross into her north Austin-based district. It is a major concern for stakeholders that voters who live in areas not connected to the rail line may be inclined to not support it. That idea also extends to candidates running for council seats in districts not touched by the proposed route. This is something Mayor Leffingwell alluded to when he talked about the need for a continuing educational campaign on the benefits of urban rail. That education could be the difference in whether voters view rail as an increase in their taxes or an alternative to their daily commute bogged down by traffic congestion.

If voters do approve the bond package in November a fleet of 9 trains would be on track to begin by 2021. After which, according to CapMetro they will begin to look at the next phase of the build out which they envision connecting suburban Austin to the downtown core.

Follow me on Twitter at @joethepleb.

About Author

Joe Deshotel

Joe was born and raised in Beaumont, Tx, but live music and politics brought him to Austin. He has worked in and around government and elections for over a decade including for a member of US Congress, the Texas Legislature, the Mayor of Austin. He currently serves as Communications Director for the Travis County Democratic Party. He is most interested in transportation, energy and technology issues. He also likes Texas Hold'em and commuting on his electric skateboard. Follow me on Twitter at @joethepleb.

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