DALLAS — Austin may be moving toward a $600 million bond election as the City Council considers ways to build a light-rail system.
Nine years after voters narrowly rejected building a rail system, the issue is back on tomorrow’s council agenda in the form of a proposal to hire a consultant to design a route and refine cost estimates.
The council has already hired URS Corp. to consider alternatives for the possible line. A route could be chosen as early as February, with a decision on a bond referendum following in the spring.
At tomorrow’s meeting, Austin transportation director Robert Spillar will discuss general obligation bonds as part of the funding scenarios for the proposed system. Start-up systems usually require GOs, then shift to revenue bonds as revenues gain momentum.
The city has already decided to bypass the regional Capital Metro Transit Authority in building the system, as CapMetro deals with its own financial challenges. Austin is the largest triple-A rated city in Texas. City officials are considering asking voters for bond approval in November 2010.
Despite its reputation as one of the state’s most congested cities, Austin has trailed Dallas and Houston in its use of mass transit as a solution. Capital Metro was not formed until 1985, collecting sales tax revenue from Austin and several suburbs to provide bus service.
In the November 2000 referendum, voters in the Cap Metro region rejected a 52-mile light-rail system. That failure was followed four years later by the “All Systems Go” initiative that included the commuter rail line.
A plan for Cap Metro rapid bus and a commuter rail line was outlined in 2004. The 32-mile commuter rail line, operating on former freight tracks owned by Austin, is complete but is awaiting technical and safety fixes before operations can begin.
Bus rapid transit, a system that uses dedicated bus lanes as an alternative to rail, could be operational by 2012.
Over the past two years, Austin has been developing its light-rail options as part of its plan for downtown. With government and University of Texas operations in the center of the city, Austin is regarded as a good candidate for a light-rail system. For years, UT operated a heavily used bus line serving students scattered in apartments north and south of the campus.
The City Council has already held a series of public meetings on the rail idea in September 2008. Two meetings were held in each of the three major segments of the proposed 15.3 mile route.
The rail line as currently conceived would serve downtown, the UT campus, and Austin-Bergstrom Airport southeast of downtown.
The council tomorrow will also consider special zoning for transit-related development along Airport Boulevard. Transit-related development typically includes condos, apartments, and businesses served by a light-rail line.