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Legislators, local representatives laying 'tracks' for commuter rail

With all the talk about the possibility of commuter rail in the area, representatives from Leander have been working with state and national lawmakers to make sure the needs of the city are not forgotten.

Leander resident Jason Anderson of Gold Rush Realty traveled to Washington D.C. earlier this month with about 30 other Central Texas lawmakers and representatives to meet with members of Congress. The team presented its case for the relocation of Union Pacific freight trains, an essential step in bringing commuter rail to the area.

The reception was positive, with key members of the Texas congressional delegation including Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson showing support.

"I was definitely pleased with the outcome," Anderson said.

Re-routing the trains, which currently run parallel to the Mopac corridor in Austin, would not only increase transportation options in the area but would also benefit Union Pacific by speeding up distribution, Anderson said.

"With the population increase over the years and the number of stops, a train has to slow down when it goes through Austin," Anderson said. "It slows down the distribution of freight all the way across the nation."

Relocating the Union Pacific lines would cost an estimated $500 million, according to Union Pacific, but the move would open up the possibility of creating commuter rail from Georgetown to San Antonio, as well as a Capital Metro line which would run from Leander to Austin, Anderson said.

"I wanted to make sure we were included in the scenario because of the economic impact it would have on Leander as a community and tying it in to the rest of Austin," Anderson said.

Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Taylor, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, has said that commuter rail would be cheaper, faster and less disruptive to create than light rail.

If the Capital Metro commuter line receives public support, it would need approval by the Capital Metro board before being put on the November ballot, according to Libba Letton, Capital Metro spokesperson.

"If we can educate the public on the economic benefits that we have, as far as adding transportation options and the dependability of commuter rail from Leander going into Austin, I think it will help as far as the future election when it comes to commuter rail," Anderson said.

Transportation is a key component in the strategy the city of Leander is using to plan the development of approximately 2,000 acres of empty land. The March 24 edition of Hill Country News reported that the city recently entered into a contract with Gateway Planning Group, an urban design group that focuses on transit-oriented development (TOD), a progressive style of urban design that uses mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly zoning.

Leander's transportation infrastructure includes the future Capital Metro Park and Ride facility, set for completion by September 2005; the future 183-A toll road, set for completion in about two and a half years; and the existing rail line.

City officials will meet with the seven major landowners and representatives from Capital Metro Wednesday, April 21, in Austin to discuss the city's future development. Transit-oriented development is dependent on the relationship between the public and private sector, according to Scott Polikov, principal with Gateway Planning.

So far, that relationship has been good, according to Mayor John Cowman.

"Everyone is on board," he said.

Surrounding city officials have taken notice of Leander's proposed land use plan and the importance of the public-private relationship. Earlier this month, the Austin City Council approved a request to renovate the Seaholm Power Plant in downtown Austin and make it a private commercial venture. It is a likely site for a downtown commuter-rail station.

At the April 1 meeting, Austin City Councilmember Brewster McCracken said he is impressed by the way Leander is planning for the future.

"My point was that Leander is already planning ahead for the commuter rail line that would start up in Leander by basically re-orienting their entire development pattern in their city," McCracken said. "It's time for us to think ahead because Leander, for instance, is already thinking ahead on this issue."

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