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New idea pitched for Urban Rail Project

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With critical votes set to take place later this month a new idea is being pitched for phase one of the billion dollar Urban Rail Project.

It involves moving away from Highland Mall and extending to the airport. The only commuter rail we have now starts at the Convention Center and heads north to Leander.

The focus of the proposed Urban Rail Project is on the core of Austin ending with the airport within sight but not connected. Tuesday rail planners were asked to consider making that link.

Austin City Council members and the Capitol Metro Board of Directors met together Tuesday to get one last urban rail briefing.

Later this month both groups will decide whether or not the proposed $1.3 billion Urban Rail Project will stay on track for a public vote in November.

"I believe we've made the right decision for Austin," Mayor Lee Leffingwell said.

Rail planners are proposing that the 9.5 mile project should run from Highland Mall to the north, through the UT campus and downtown, southeast across Riverside Drive and stop at Grove Blvd near an ACC campus.

Councilman Mike Martinez questioned why the southern leg wasn’t ending at the airport.

"I don’t see how a park and ride at ABIA can be any less successful than a park and ride at Grove Blvd which is arguably in the middle of nowhere," Martinez said.

Martinez suggested a tradeoff should be considered. Link up with the airport now and eliminate the section to Highland Mall where a new ACC campus is being built.

"I believe it would gain much broader support, I believe we could still maintain the ridership but have truly a park and ride option at the airport for commuters coming in from Bastrop, Lockhart and other points beyond the Airport," Martinez said.

But planners worry that losing the Highland Mall stop, which can be a spring board to a larger population base, could reduce the number of riders and reduce the amount federal funding for the project.

"Most communities that extended to an airport they've done that as a second or third step of an extension but not usually not as the first extension," Urban Project Rail Lead Kyle Keahey said.

The plan is to get the federal government to pay half of the $1.38 billion that’s needed. Failing to secure that could derail the entire project.

Building a signature bridge over Lady Bird Lake is still part of the plan but unfortunately that plan also includes taking out a big part of the new boat house will have to go.

"We looked at a number of different alternatives from existing bridges to new crossings to exam where is the best place for us to cross through our analysis we identified Trinity as the best place for it to occur," Keahey said

If urban rail is built, it’s estimated that 18,000 daily boarding will take place by 2020. The annual cost to operate it is estimated to be around $22 million.

A rail line adjustment can be done after the votes by the city council and cap metro board later this month.

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