By Ben Wear - American-Statesman Staff
Set aside, for the moment, the huge question of whether Austin should spend large coin to build more passenger rail. Voters next November, perhaps, will have the final say on that.
But the rail question of the moment is where it would go — and the odd situation that has evolved about who gets to decide that.
Unless things change, the deciders won’t be the Austin City Council or the Capital Metro board of directors. Or even the board of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, which is charged with approving the area’s long-range transportation plan.
No, apparently it will be a 16-member committee appointed by (and including) Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell that I would wager 99 percent of you don’t know exists: the Central Corridor Advisory Group.
The bottom line is that by the time the council and the Capital Metro board actually vote, which Leffingwell said might not be before June, the staff members planning rail will have put together the specific route, the station locations, the funding and the type of rail.
The real decision about where to go, particularly on the key question of whether to go west of the University of Texas on Guadalupe Street or through the middle of campus on San Jacinto Boulevard, will be made Dec. 6 by Leffingwell’s advisory group.
Until a week ago, it had appeared that the council on Dec. 12 would be taking a vote on it as well. In fact, a presentation by officials with Project Connect, a combined effort of the city, Capital Metro and the Lone Star Rail District to create a regional transit plan, earlier had said such a vote would occur.
But Leffingwell, at a Nov. 15 meeting of the advisory group where the staff revealed where it thinks “urban rail” should go (more on that in a minute), said that, no, the council only will get a briefing Dec. 12. No vote and, notably, no public comment allowed at the meeting. Leffingwell told me last week that the Project Connect staff made an error when it said the council would vote on the plan in December, that that was never the intention.
Julie Montgomery, a member of the advisory group, asked Leffingwell why the voting plan had changed. Leffingwell gave her what could charitably be described as a circular explanation.
“I think it would be better if we wait until we have it completed,” Leffingwell said. In other words, cut twice and measure once. In six months.
Leffingwell, pointing to the official charges for the advisory group he created in June, said its mission was to advise the mayor and the Project Connect staff, not the council as a whole.
In case you missed it, the Project Connect staff’s recommendation was that the first phase of urban rail go from what it called the Highland “sub-corridor” (the Highland Mall area stretching south to the university), through downtown, across the river (probably on a new bridge), and then southeast along East Riverside Drive.
It rejected the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor, the path that a group of rail activists (including Montgomery) favor because it has the city’s highest bus ridership now. Their argument is that unless rail is put where a large number of people have demonstrated an affinity for taking transit, ridership on this next phase of rail will be as inconsequential as Capital Metro’s MetroRail has been (less than 3,000 boardings a day) and Central Texans will turn away from rail permanently.
And they point to results from a series of Project Connect workshops this fall where participants were asked what corridor would be best for rail. More than 40 percent picked the Lamar corridor from among 10 choices. Highland got around 6 percent and East Riverside about 17 percent.
Project Connect officials said that rail planning should not be a “popularity contest,” and that the corridors they picked have better long-term potential for spurring and serving development (and thus, presumably, ridership). Percolating under all of this is that the San Jacinto route, going right by Royal-Memorial Stadium and through campus, is what UT officials want (Leffingwell’s advisory group has a UT official on it). And a Highland route likely also would go right by a future UT medical school and proposed “innovation district,” what many important people around here see as the golden child of Central Austin’s future.
Both routes have their strong and weak points. Reasonable people can disagree on which would be best, just as reasonable people can differ on whether rail is a good idea at all.
But on Dec. 6, some intelligent and dedicated volunteers including Montgomery, developer Tom Stacy, lawyer Tim Taylor, Seton CEO Greg Hartman, former Austin Planning Commission chairman Dave Sullivan and UT vice president Pat Clubb will be setting a path for rail. The council, when it gets its chance, only will be able to say “yea” or “nay.” The hay will pretty much be in the barn by then.
This is no knock on those committee members, who have spent a lot of time working on all this for no pay. But none of them, aside from Leffingwell and fellow Council Member Bill Spelman, have ever received a vote for public office.