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ROMA presents plan for downtown streetcar system

Friday, July 25, 2008 by Austin Monitor

Members of the ROMA Design Group presented an updated study on Thursday of a downtown mass transit circulator system, saying such a system would likely spur economic development along its several routes. However, there was debate among the Council members as to how soon such a system should be put before the city’s voters


The study recommended the use of electric streetcars to connect the Capital Metro commuter rail line to other parts of the city and provided a more refined cost estimate. The consultants did not, however, recommend a date for an election on the streetcar proposal or offer a recommendation for which local government agencies should bear the majority of the cost for the system.


ROMA estimates a 15.3-mile streetcar system would cost between $550 and $614 million to build and about $21 million per year to operate but City Manager Marc Ott said the city should not rely on those numbers for purposes of making decisions about the project.


“I offer the cautionary note because of the tendency that we all have to lock into numbers so early on in a project like this,” Ott said. “I think that with respect to those numbers we’re talking about those estimates based on what we know today, and at the same time recognizing there’s a lot we don’t know. I don’t want the media to write a story that says that these are the numbers, because quite frankly, the numbers are going to change.”


The consultants also said that the line would likely spur new development in several locations. A line connecting the Seaholm redevelopment to the new Mueller neighborhood via the recommended route of Manor Road, ROMA estimates, would include 275 acres of potential new development within 1,500 feet of the rail corridor. A second line connecting downtown to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport could spur development along 1,089 acres. The third segment studied by ROMA would connect downtown and Zilker Park. 


Mayor Pro Tem Brewster McCracken said the city could use increased tax revenues from the areas along the line as a financing tool. “What we’ve seen is Portland, Seattle, a lot of cities around the country have looked at land sales, parking enterprises, things that are related to land development along the rail system,” he said. “I think it’s really important we get these financing issues ironed out. I do think that we should have a credible, fully vetted financing plan before we take this to the voters. I’m all for taking it to the CAMPO Transit Working Group. The problem is without a financing plan it would not make it through the decision tree.”


A major portion of the funding, McCracken said, could come from new development along a line connecting Austin to Manor and Elgin. That commuter rail line would utilize exiting track. “If we look at areas where we can have big land development impacts as a financing tool…the city owns Decker Lake. That’s 400-plus acres. That could become a major financial engine to fund the entire system,” he said. “But if you don’t do Elgin-Manor at an early stage, you miss out on the financing opportunities.”


Council Member Sheryl Cole agreed that a thorough study of the financing behind the system would be necessary before putting a proposal on the ballot. She asked city staff and ROMA to first bring those financing options to the Council’s Audit and Finance Committee. “I also think that the committee needs to look at the potential federal funding that may be available to fund not only the inner-city connection but the entire system, the commuter rail line, and also the Austin-San Antonio line…so that we are not looking at it in just a vacuum, but we’re looking at a comprehensive plan that we could take to the voters,” she said.


Other members of the Council indicated a desire to see the issue go to voters sooner, rather than later, although no members of the Council voiced a desire for an election this fall as originally proposed by Mayor Will Wynn last year. “We all know there are still significant problems remaining that haven’t even begun to be addressed,” said Council Member Lee Leffingwell, “primarily the financing, who’s going to operate the line, how they’re going to operate it. But I think that we ought to go ahead with this recommendation…based on a timetable. If we can solve these other problems, this timetable ought to be predicated on a May 2009 election.”


The City of Austin could have an election on a streetcar system in 2009. However, an election next year would have to be held without the participation of Capital Metro. House Bill 2440, sponsored by Rep. Mike Krusee and approved by the state legislature in 2001, limits the transit agency to holding its rail elections in the fall of even-numbered years. “If we could develop a financing package for Phase One, which would be permissible for a May 2009 election, I’m all for that,” said McCracken. Phase One of the system, as outlined in the ROMA report, would be the Seaholm to Mueller route, ending at the station for the Capital Metro commuter rail line on Manor Rd. ROMA estimated that would cost between $192 million and $231 million.


“I anticipate much healthier public debate here in a matter of weeks,” said Wynn, who suggested that the issue be brought back before the Council for further direction in the next few weeks, with the goal of making recommendations to the CAMPO Transit Working Group. “Our peer cities and cities that want to be our peers are moving forward with rail projects as fast as they possibly can,” he said. “I think it behooves us to try to do all we can…but in very objective, very judicious way…to figure out what those projects might be.”

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