June 27-- After hearing from a divided public, a unanimous Austin City Council edged one step closer Thursday to what would be a pivot-point election for Austin transportation this fall, voting to endorse a $1 billion mixture of rail and road projects.
Thursday's vote, in the case of the long-discussed urban rail project, will allow rail planners for the city and Capital Metro to initiate an environmental study of the proposed 9.5-mile, electric-powered line running between Highland Mall in North Austin and -- after passing through the University of Texas and downtown -- East Riverside Drive at Grove Boulevard.
Designating the route Austin's "locally preferred alternative" is also a first step toward potentially convincing the Federal Transit Administration to pay for half of the proposed $1.4 billion project.
But the more critical vote will come either Aug. 7 or Aug. 14, when the council will decide on putting $600 million for rail and $400 million mostly for roads on a single bond proposition in November. That bond vote arguably would be the most important election for Austin transportation since a light rail proposition failed in 2000.
The urban rail part of that proposition, given the route choice, has already generated opposition from some transit advocates who adamantly prefer another corridor that they say would get the light rail system off to a critically important fast start with strong ridership. But the proposal faces other problems, including the line's relatively limited reach in an urban area of several hundred square miles and planners' estimate that it will remove at most 10,000 cars from Austin roads by 2030.
The $400 million in road projects, with details unveiled only this week, is an attempt to solve that political problem while simultaneously taking on some of the area's nastier road challenges. It includes several interchange improvements along Interstate 35, primarily in South Austin; a bridge and other additions linking Texas 71 to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport; a new interchange on U.S. 183 to connect to East Riverside; a traffic management center and several studies of future road and rail projects.
The combination of projects on a single bond proposition carries the possibility that, while perhaps drawing in road supporters, it could drive away some friends of rail. But the council thus far has shown no inclination to disconnect them on the November ballot.
Representatives of the Austin chapter of the Sierra Club and Bike Texas -- during what the council limited to an hour of public comment Thursday, split evenly between supporters and opponents of the rail plan -- indicated that they supported the rail portion but not the roads section.
"Our position is not ideal, just like the plan is not ideal," said Roy Waley, conservation chair with the Sierra Club. "But we did vote to support the plan. It's been 14 years (since the light rail vote). If we don't move forward with rail now, when will we be able to do it?"
Much of the criticism Thursday came from critics of the plan who are upset by the council's decision to limit comment.
"This plan is opposed by groups that serve over 100,000 Austinites, and you are giving them 30 minutes," said Scott Morris, founder of Our Rail, a political action committee that will work to defeat the bond proposal. "This game we're playing tonight is threatening our federal match (of project dollars), and it's threatening the future of rail in this city."
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