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Study: Urban rail could add $31 billion to Austin economy by 2030

Friday, August 30, 2013 by Michael Kanin

A staff-produced study of the potential economic impact of a complete urban rail system for the City of Austin concludes that a layout that includes rail service along South Congress Avenue and East Riverside Drive could result in $31 billion of total economic impact by 2030. The projections further suggest that a project on that scale would bring Austin $109 million new tax dollars annually by the third decade of this century.


As impressive as those figures appear to be, they may not reflect the reality of what the first phase of Austin urban rail will look like. Most rail discussion has thus far centered on the idea that the initial layout of the project would serve mostly downtown and neighborhoods to the immediate north of the university. It would likely, at least initially, stop at the shores of Lady Bird Lake. That scenario would leave off spurs that could run along East Riverside – and out to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport – and South Congress Avenue.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who has made urban rail a priority for his final term in office, injected a bit of reality into the figures. “Mind-boggling as these numbers are – impressive as they are – a lot of that is going to vary a little bit on where the particular alignment of any urban rail system, plus commuter rail plus intercity rail, all of these various components,” he said. “That is a decision that has not yet been made.”


City Economic Development Director Kevin Johns presented the study to Council members as part of Council’s Thursday meeting. There, Johns also suggested that a full urban rail system could spur 45,000 new residents and 58,000 new jobs by 2030.


Johns also suggested that the new system could “save 12,500 daily commuters $100 million by owning one fewer vehicle per household.” Johns predicted that, under the scenario, the savings in vehicular miles traveled would amount to $296 million and as many as 2,300 addition jobs, should it all come to pass.


Council Member Mike Martinez wondered what Johns’ model would look like, growth-wise, minus the urban rail component. Johns did not offer specifics. However, he noted that “we deliberate did not try to make the connection that you need urban rail to track growth.” Johns added that “we are saying…if you do develop the urban growth (rail) will organize it.”


“It will be channeled to this area because people see that they can see an $8,000 a year bump in their salary, or that they’re healthier because they can walk or bike to work,” Johns continued.


For her part, Council Member Laura Morrison called on her colleagues to look under the hood of the study. “I think that being able to get to the gets of this will answer a lot…of questions,” she offered.


Johns sprinkled his presentation with frequent mentions of the “supercomputer” nature of the model’s derivation, and implications that the programming that his office used for the rail study would be transferrable. Council Member Bill Spelman wondered about that.


“What other public policy decisions do you believe that this tool would be useful for?” Spelman asked.


“We’ll make it available anytime that you want, now that we know how to do it,” said Johns.


Spelman wondered if interested parties could be used as part of land use discussions. Johns confirmed that this was the case.

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