Tracing Austin’s Urban Rail Plan Back to 2007

By Bill Oakey – August 22, 2014

In case there are any folks out there who thought Austin’s East Riverside urban rail plan was something new dreamed up by Project Connect, you are in for an interesting trip through time. While it’s true that some form of light rail has been bandied about since at least the 1970’s, the current incarnation that includes East Riverside Drive starting coming into focus in the fall of 2007.

We can thank the Austin Chronicle for keeping its handy archives online to help with this type of warm and fuzzy nostalgia. Before we begin the journey, let me point out a few unmistakable factors that underpin all things related to urban rail – growth, developers and high density housing. And we might as well throw in gentrification. Once you frame that picture in your mind, everything else falls neatly into place.

October 2007 – Mayor Will Wynn Calls for 2008 Bond Election

In 2007 Mayor Will Wynn and Council Member Brewster McCracken were the two big urban rail advocates. At his State of Downtown Speech, Wynn laid out a vision for a “modern ultra-light-rail streetcar” system. The Chronicle described it this way. “Its route would take riders Downtown, to multiple Central Austin locations (such as Mueller and Zilker Park), serve the UT and state office buildings, and connect major work-live-play nodes.” The next sentence mentions “a crucial link to Bergstrom Airport.” It just so happens that East Riverside Drive is between downtown and the airport. You can read the article here.

Despite proclaiming that he was “hellbent on calling an election in one year,” Mayor Wynn did not put the rail plan on the ballot in 2008. Perhaps it was slowed down by the collapse of Lehman Brothers and that event commonly referred to as the Great Recession.

May 2008 – A Consultant And A “Transit Working Group” Come Together

The ROMA Design Group, based in San Francisco, and the Transit Working Group of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) began to hold public meetings on the light rail plan beginning in April 2008. The highlight of this article is a bold move by Brewster McCracken to pull away from everyone else and announce his own rail plan, in an apparent move to position himself to run for mayor. He ultimately lost to Lee Leffingwell in the 2009 election.

August 2008 – The Council Gets the Final ROMA Plan

The ROMA design team presented the City Council with a $550 million to $614 million plan for a 15.3 mile system. They estimated that the train would carry 32,000 riders per day by 2030, and that the cost per mile to build the system would be $36 million to $40 million. You should read this article to see how the four-phase construction layout compares with today’s plan proposed by Project Connect.

October 2009 – Austin Seizes Control and Rebrands The Train System As “Urban Rail”

Because of Capital Metro’s repeated delays and problems launching the commuter Red Line, the City of Austin decided to cut them out of the loop for the new local rail system. At the same time they coined a new non-standard label to describe the system – “urban rail.” Management of the project was turned over to the City’s Transportation Department.

Now for the first time we see East Riverside Drive brought into the conversation. Here is the Chronicle’s description of the route. “The first stage would serve Downtown, the Capitol complex, and the University of Texas area; it would also probably cross the river to Riverside, later going all the way out to the airport.”  You can read the article here.

March 2010 – City Council Adopts East Riverside Corridor Master Plan, Rejects Planning Commission’s Plea for Compatibility Standards

Well before the genesis of CodeNEXT, East Riverside received the official blessing of the City Council to become one of the first “activity centers” envisioned in the Imagine Austin Plan. This would soon lead to the bulldozing of affordable apartments for U.T. students and low-income residents, many of whom were Hispanic.

Included in this article is a one of the most significant and most telling statements in the entire history of Austin’s urban rail saga. Here it is verbatim from the Chronicle. It speaks for itself. “The mayor and council members rebuffed a last-minute recommendation from the Planning Commission to apply the usual compatibility standards (which limit height near houses) in the master plan; that could have gutted the density necessary for the new rail transit line at the heart of the plan.” Notice that it identifies the new rail transit line as being “at the heart of the plan.” Why the ROMA plan eventually fell apart would be an interesting matter to explore.

Now Comes the Big Question That Everyone Should Be Asking

I’m almost afraid to blurt this out, but I’m going to do it anyway.  Just close your eyes and try to imagine how much the City, Capital Metro, CAMPO and Project Connect have spent on this rail plan in the seven years since 2007. It would have to include the staff expenses and consultant fees paid by all of the public entities during that entire span of time. And every penny of it was spent without any of the officials having a clue as to whether the public would ultimately vote to approve the East Riverside to Highland Mall rail plan. What we now know is that it is shaping up to be one of the most unpopular bond propositions ever to come down the pike. City Council candidates are coming out in droves to openly oppose it. Voters in their districts are telling them that they don’t want it.

The saddest part of all is that a large segment of the Austin population does stand firmly in support of rail. They just want a route that will take them where they need to go. They don’t want rail in a location designed to attract the heavy high density development needed to garner the required ridership to qualify for Federal funding. Most everyone understands that development of that magnitude would bring in enough additional cars to more than offset any potential traffic relief that we could ever hope to gain by building the rail line. In fact the resulting congestion would probably be worse than it is today.


2 thoughts on “Tracing Austin’s Urban Rail Plan Back to 2007

  1. gonzalo camacho, p.e.

    Thanks for the article Mr. Oakey,

    I wonder whether having actual numbers would change the perseption of what “urban rail” may represent for Austin.

    In reference to your last paragraph, “The saddest part of all is that a large segment of the Austin population does stand firmly in support of rail. They just want a route that will take them where they need to go.” Isn’t it a fact that most people in Austin drive cars and those who might use urban rail might be a very small percentage and mostly from those already using buses? Would you happen to have these estimated numbers?

    It might be conclusive that, while EVERY person residing in Austin will have to pay the financing of urban rail, very few will use it? If so, then what is the benefit? If a home owner of a median price home $200k might have to pay additional $100/month for 5 to 10 years in property taxes to finance urban rail; how is it considered “affordable” or sustainable? Also commercial properties will pass on to consumers the added property taxes, is there an estimate how much that would impact Austin residents?

    Also I don’t believe that “wealthy” cities like Austin need the government financing to build the best transportation system that man has seen. But if we limit the conversation to government funded “urban rail” vs. a comprehensive look at city wide mobility, then the results are obvious – more congestion and more expensive housing costs, I am yet to learn of a city in the US that has reduced congestion besides through downturn of the economy.

    And also I wonder, doesn’t the large segment of Austinites supporting urban rail has forgotten that there is MetroRail? Isn’t it worth revisit lesson learned?


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