Austin activists envision light rail expansion, transit tunnel under possible 2020 bond

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A CapMetro Long Term Vision Plan rendering of future transit options. Image Courtesy CapMetro PDF Feb 27, 2019.

Austin (KXAN) — A group of Austinites have released a detailed plan outlining the new transportation options they would like to see in Austin if a 2020 transportation bond becomes a reality in the city.

The plan is being called the “Wheel Deal” and was put together by three people: Susan Somers (an Austin Urban Transportation Commissioner), Jose “Chito” Vela III (an immigration attorney and former Austin Planning Commissioner) and Julio Gonzalez Altamirano (a community activist and a founder of urbanist organization AURA). Altamirano said that the Wheel Deal was created by an entirely volunteer effort, these three volunteered their own time to make this plan and the website.

“Because we have a climate crisis, we have a transportation crisis and this is probably the best electorate in my life to do something about it,” Altamirano explained.

The Wheel Deal

The total expected cost of this plan would be around $5.36 billion dollars. Several components make up that amount:

  • $3.177 billion – Orange Line Light Rail
    • Light rail from Tech Ridge to Slaughter Lane, running on North Lamar, Guadalupe, and South Congress.
  • $1.17 billion – Blue Line Light Rail
    • Light rail from Airport to Central Austin running on East Riverside (from ABIA to downtown)
  • $167 million – Bus Plus
    • Improved bus service, MetroRapid expansion, and new dedicated lanes
  • $350 million – Bike Network
    • A network of more than 300 miles of protected bike lanes and urban trails
  • $350 million – Sidewalks
    • 550 new miles of sidewalk to connect people with transit, bikes, parks, and schools.
  • $100 million – Venture Capture Funds
    • Land acquisition near transit to help the city develop affordable housing and other community assets nearby.
  • $35 million –Vision Zero
    • Improving the ten most dangerous roads and intersections to further Austin’s “Vision Zero” goal of zero traffic-related deaths.
  • $10 million – Shade Fund
    • A fund to boost the amount of shade offered in areas the public uses often

The Orange Line plan outlined in the Wheel Deal accounts for the cost estimates of a downtown transit tunnel.

An image of a potential downtown transit tunnel in a Project Connect presentation from CapMetro.

The people behind the “Wheel Deal” say they have revised it based on specific feedback from community members, which can also be viewed on their website.

According to their math, the “Wheel Deal” they’re proposing would cost less than a dollar a day for the typical Austinite. Additionally, they believe this plan would improve transportation options to the point that many families would be able to eliminate a car from their household — and consequently the payments which come with owning a car.

A possible transportation bond

Austin’s City Council hasn’t provided any direction yet on whether a transportation bond will go before voters in November of 2020, but the “Wheel Deal” assumes that the council will be doing so soon. The “Wheel Deal” website calls upon Austinites to contact their council members about the plan.

There have been murmurings in the Austin political scene of a large transportation bond going before voters in November. A group called Transit for Austin launched in the fall of 2018 with the express purpose of pitching a large November 2020 bond effort which would encompass bus lines, rail lines and transit lines.

Austin City Council and Cap Metro are scheduled to have a joint work session on Tuesday, January 14 at the Austin City Hall, explained CapMetro spokesperson Mariette Hummel. That work session should offer an update on Project Connect, a plan to create high-capacity transit in the Austin area.

  • This story has been updated to reflect the correct date and location of this meeting.

Hummel said the establishment of the “Orange” and “Blue” rail lines will definitely be part of the discussion Tuesday. She also mentioned it’s possible that a potential downtown transit tunnel could be part of the discussion as well.

Hummel noted that CapMetro will be looking at federal grant options to fund their portion of Project Connect while the city is responsible for finding local funding for its own portion. She explained that a transportation bond will be one of the options the city will be discussing Tuesday to help pay for the project.

A multi-part effort to boost Austin transportation

In 2016, Austin voters did approve a $720 million mobility bond to improve roads. That will fund part of the Smart Corridor Plan and the city Projects to be funded by the 2016 mobility bond can be viewed online.

An earlier effort was not as successful, “proposition one,” in 2014 which included $600 million for a nine-mile rail line and $400 million for roads was rejected by Austin voters. It would have cost the owner of a $200,000 home an extra $217 a year. At the time, voters rejected the plan.

Julio Gonzalez Altamirano with Wheel Deal explained that his team has advocated for high-capacity transit in Austin since these early efforts.

“What we have learned is you gotta get the grassroots early, you gotta get them involved around a specific vision and you gotta get the technical homework done early,” Altamirano said.

At this point, there are no organizations or council members committed to supporting Wheel Deal but Altamirano alluded that there may be some coming in the near future. The people who crafted Wheel Deal say they’ve been meeting with many organizations in Austin to get input.

“When I got [to Austin] all of these groups I told you about really didn’t exist or didn’t have the clout or the memberships they do now,” Altamirano said.

In addition to improving transportation options for Austinites, Altamrino sees a potential transportation bond as a chance to make the city more affordable and to address climate change.

“We can’t wait for the state or the federal government to save us, we gotta do that a right here,” he said. “And this is an opportunity to do that, and we know just building roads, relying on roads is not going to do it.”

A CapMetro Long Term Vision Plan rendering of future transit options. Image Courtesy CapMetro PDF Feb 27, 2019.

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