TX: Central Austin Neighborhood Groups Attack Proposed Rail Route

June 06-- If the proposed urban rail line between Highland Mall and East Riverside Drive gets approval this November from voters, it will have to do so over the official disapproval of neighborhood groups throughout its Central Austin run.

On Thursday, a nonprofit group released resolutions from seven associations and the University of Texas student government supporting a route running principally along Guadalupe Street and North Lamar Boulevard. Those groups -- by implication in opposition to the city's $1.4 billion plan -- include the Hyde Park, Northfield, Crestview and Highland neighborhood associations.

"The people do not want the East Riverside-to-Highland alignment, and the policymakers haven't heard that message yet," said Scott Morris, director of the two-year-old Central Austin Community Development Corporation.

A faction of rail supporters has persistently argued against the proposed route and many, including Morris, say they'll vote against it to preserve the possibility of putting rail where they believe it makes the most sense. Morris said the groups involved represent about 100,000 people, exacerbating the political challenge for the city and Capital Metro. He said a petition for the Guadalupe-Lamar route had been signed by more than 1,035 residents.

The Austin City Council must decide by August whether to ask voters to OK selling up to $700 million in property tax-backed bonds, half the funding for the urban rail project. Rail officials plan to seek the other half from the Federal Transit Administration in a highly competitive process.

The council could decide to ask voters for a smaller amount to pay for a shorter route. Officials have also raised the possibility of including some road funding on the same ballot question.

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who has been pushing for urban rail through his five years leading the city, said a Guadalupe-Lamar alignment will not work because it would require eliminating half of the five-lane artery's four through lanes, and refunding a $38 million federal grant for rapid bus service that began in that corridor in January.

"Nobody, least of all me, is going to be willing to turn Lamar Boulevard into a two-lane route for rail," Leffingwell said. "We basically haven't started a campaign yet. It's going to be well organized and, I assume, well funded. If there are misunderstandings out there, we're going to do our best to correct them."

The $38 million grant to Capital Metro was for two rapid bus lines, not just the No. 801 along Guadalupe and Lamar. And Morris argues that the federal grant is flexible enough that Capital Metro could relocate the stations and buses bought with that money to another route.

Former political consultant Peck Young, who now runs Austin Community College's Center for Public Policy and Political Studies, said he understands why neighborhood groups north of downtown might be concerned about the Highland route. Officials, in justifying building rail into what is now a neglected sector of the city, point to plans for heavy construction along Airport Boulevard related to both rail and the new ACC campus at Highland Mall.

"This route doesn't really relieve much congestion for those folks, and potentially puts pressure on the edges of their neighborhoods for high-density development," Young said. "I'm not surprised that neighborhood associations are not bubbling over with joy."

Rail advocates such as Morris, Leffingwell said, are taking a self-defeating position by opposing a plan years in the making.

"If this is turned down this year," Leffingwell said, "it'll be another decade-plus before you see it again."

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