Urban Rail Line is getting Shorter and Shorter….

The Project Connect commission is starting to realize the size of the bite they have taken.  The ambitious commission that was going to provide a “grand unification theory” for transportation in Central Texas has realized that every foot of rail costs more than anybody on that commission will earn in their lifetime, and they’re starting to get, as we say in Texas, a little lilly-livered.

So they are doing what all grand visionaries do when faced with reality.  They’re ducking and covering.

First, they looked around the city and decided that they did NOT want to pay for rail along the corridor where all the people live and work (Lamar / Guadalupe) because it would be way too expensive, and besides, we already have these shiny new red “bendy” buses that go along that route, and what would we do with those buses if we put train tracks along that same route?  I mean, it’s not like you can drive buses on a different street, right?

Rail, in their opinion, needed to be placed — NOT where the people already live and work — but where the people WILL live and work SOMEDAY. So they mapped out a cheaper route alternative that would connect the urban centers of tomorrow.

They imagined connecting ACC Highland (which will be fully developed over the next 20 years) with the U.T. Medical School (10 to 15 years from now), along the Waller Creek area of downtown (which will be developed “River-Walk Style” over the next few decades), then across the river and out along Riverside Drive, which will probably be an Urban Center by 2050.  Like I said — they want to put the rail where it will serve the people of TOMORROW.

Urban rail route

However, the people of TODAY have to pay the $1.4 billion price tag for this rail line, and we’re having a little trouble swallowing it.

So, Project Connect has decided that they were just kidding when they said they wanted to serve the people where they will live in the future, and they’ve started cutting off segments right and left.  As many as 20,000 students may attend school and live near ACC Highland, but they don’t need to be a part of this whole Project Connect thing, right?

You see, now the commissioners are recommending that we trim a few hundred million dollars by cutting off ACC Highland, and stopping the rail service at Hancock Center.

Why Hancock Center you ask?  Well… um… U.T. students might want to go to Sears?

I don’t know, but the point is it would cost less, and when your goals have been completely eclipsed by the price tag, all you can think about is cutting costs.  Goals and objectives no longer matter.

And as long as we are cutting costs, another option on the table would be to cut off the service at U.T.  That would save even more money.  We could spend just shy of $1 billion, plus an annual operating budget of $20 million and give people a first-class ticket to go from East Riverside Drive to U.T.

Because… you know… the people of tomorrow want to do that.

Or, here is an idea, we could save even MORE money if we didn’t build the silly thing in the first place!  No, wait… I’m being stupid. Of course we are going to have rail. Forget I said anything.

Here’s the thing that gets me.  Back in 2000, Austin voters had a chance to put rail where it really would work — right down Lamar and Guadalupe. However, three suburban-dwelling rich guys (Jim Skaggs, Ger­ald Daugherty, and Mike Levy) got together and fought that rail plan with a lot of money and a catchy slogan: “Costs Too Much; Does Too Little.” That was the RIGHT rail proposal for Austin, but with organized and well-funded opposition from the Three Nattering Naybobs, the proposal was very narrowly defeated at the polls in 2000.  (Subsequent polls showed that if that same proposal had been put up for a vote again a few years later, it would have passed overwhelmingly, and we would already have rail through the heart of Austin by now.)

Now we have a new rail proposal that is simply the wrong proposal. The newest iteration of Austin Rail Redux really does cost too much and do too little.  And they’re not trying to make it better — they’re trying to deal with the overwhelming cost by making it do even less. Well, here is my catchy slogan for the next election:  “If you buy cheap, you get cheap.”  Spending 1 billion dollars on a worthless transit system is a lot worse than spending 1.4 billion dollars on a transit system that is less-than-ideal.  If we have to spend $1,000 for every man, woman, and child in Austin (and apparently we do), then let’s at least get something for our money.  If we can’t have rail where it makes sense (Lamar / Guadalupe), then let’s at least create a transit center at ACC Highland that connects bus, Regional Rail, and Light Rail.  With Highland under construction now, there is an opportunity to make it a transit focal point for the Austin of Tomorrow — a Grand Central Station, if you will.

Because if you are going to spend over a billion dollars, you’d like to get something for your money, right?

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