Monday, November 28, 2005

Central Texas: Get ready to be railroaded by Mike Krusee and his 'cool' friends

Where there's a rail dream, there's likely to be an election

November 28, 2005

Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2005

The rumors had been swirling for weeks: Capital Metro is gearing up for another election, the whispering had it, maybe as soon as May. Rail opponents such as Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty were already making the rounds, arguing against it.

Whatever it was.

State Rep. Mike Krusee, the Williamson County Republican whose hand is generally involved in any transportation project around here (quite often on the tiller), seemingly gave the rumor shape and substance in a speech a week ago. But maybe not quite as much as it appeared right after Krusee's Nov. 19 call for a rail election next November.

Krusee, in his remarks to a huge forum looking at the development issues raised by the coming Texas 130 toll road, said that Central Texas is engaged in a running competition for jobs with other "cool" cities such as Denver, Seattle and Portland, Ore. Rail, and the hip station-area developments that rail fans say would come with it, are important in creating the kind of milieu that draws employers, he said.

Krusee, with that in mind, said that every rail proposal on the Central Texas drawing board needs to be built: a downtown streetcar system connecting the University of Texas, the Capitol complex and the emerging Mueller development; commuter rail lines northeast to Manor and Elgin, north to Pflugerville and from Georgetown to South Austin (and beyond) on the Union Pacific Railroad Co. line; even a connection out to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

And in an interview afterward with Austin American-Statesman reporter Steve Scheibal, Krusee called for a rail election next November, seemingly on the whole rail enchilada.


The cost of all that, frankly, has not been toted up by anyone, even in preliminary form.

But it's safe to say that it would be north of $1 billion or maybe even $2 billion, especially counting what it will cost to move most of Union Pacific's cross-country freight operations to alternate tracks east of Austin.

Capital Metro, even if it could prevail in the increasingly tough competition to get federal New Starts funding for rail projects, would probably get only half the project cost from Uncle Sam. The other half, no matter what the exact figure, would be far more than Capital Metro could gin up from its 1 percent sales tax.

The transit agency might have to ask voters, in a separate ballot question, to let it sell bonds. And get money from surrounding cities likely to have stops on the lines. And from the state. And then scour the couch cushions.

The other hurdles — procedural and political — are too numerous to set out here.

Capital Metro, though delighted to have the robust support of the chairman of the Transportation Committee of the Texas House, made it clear in interviews last week that a much more limited rail proposal would be the most it could get to the ballot by November.

So, did Krusee actually think that somehow enough of that voluminous groundwork could be laid in time for an election on the full smorgasbord of rail just about 11 months from now?

Well, no, he said last week.

"I felt like it was my job to start the discussion, lay out a goal and see if others want to join me," he said. "It's not like a plan hatched by Capital Metro and me."

He plans to have private discussions on the subject with other community leaders — people such as Austin Mayor Will Wynn and former Austin City Council Member Daryl Slusher, he said — in the coming weeks.

So, what might actually make it to the ballot next year?

Capital Metro and its consultants have been conducting a "future connections study" during the past several months on possible ways to link key Central Austin employment centers with the Austin-to-Leander commuter line (approved by voters last year) due to open in 2008.

That line, decades old and used for freight now, runs from downtown into East Austin for about a mile before turning north and then northwest. Unfortunately, it manages to keep a wide berth from both the University of Texas and the large development taking shape at the old Robert Mueller Municipal Airport site.

The study, likely to be done by April, will lay out alternatives for bridging those gaps. Given the sympathies of people in charge (including Krusee), there's a high likelihood that a rail option will prevail.It could make the ballot next year.

Less likely (at least that soon) is an extension of Capital Metro's commuter line on track it already owns to Manor and, as Krusee suggests, on east to Elgin.

That track likewise is in use by freight trains. But unlike the Austin-to-Leander leg, it would need much more upgrading to get it to the standard necessary for running passengers over it.

And there is no study under way on that corridor or, for that matter, on the unused Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad Co., or MoKan, right of way to Pflugerville or on Krusee's proposed link to the airport. And the Union Pacific line remains tied up in the seemingly endless negotiations between the state and the rail company.

And then there would be the ticklish task of actually persuading Capital Metro voters, whose approval is required under state law, to OK a large expansion.

Underlying all this is the policy question of whether we even ought to be having a rail election any time soon.

After all, Central Texans are at least two years from taking the first rides on a Capital Metro train. Shouldn't we see whether this first one works, whether a lot of folks ride it and Capital Metro runs it well, before investing in an additional line?

Daugherty certainly thinks so. And some supporters of the 2004 commuter rail proposal, including Capital Metro board member Fred Harless, said last year that the $90 million project was a relatively cheap way to test passenger rail, to "ride, and then decide" about expansion.

That slogan was treated like rancid milk by other rail supporters, however, and Krusee says that he and other advocates pointedly refused Daugherty's demand last year to make such a commitment to wait.

So a rail election next November is likely. We'll just have to wait to see on what.

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