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Council reviews Central Corridor Study’s report on Urban Rail

Tuesday, May 27, 2014 by Jenny Blair

The Austin City Council got a look Thursday at Project Connect’s Central Corridor Study recommendations for the city’s proposed high-capacity transit line, its initial route and its price tag.


Project leader Kyle Keahey told Council members the study team recommends a Locally Preferred Alternative, or LPA, of an Urban Rail route from Riverside Drive to ACC Highland.


Keahey didn’t discuss the options of alternative termini at Hancock Center or at UT North, as he did on May 16 when he presented the LPA to the Central Corridor Advisory Group.


The price tag for this alternative: $1.38 billion in 2020 dollars, or $1.13 billion in 2014 dollars. (See Austin Monitor, May 2)


Consultants at UT School of Architecture’s Center for Sustainable Development have estimated its total return on investment to fall between 5-to-1 and 7-to1. The plan is for the Federal Transit Administration to pay half and a local general-obligation bond would pay for the other half. That bond, if it’s proposed and passes in November, would increase tax rates in fiscal years 2015 and 2016.


Once the line is up and running, Capital Metro would foot most of the annual $22 million (in 2022 dollars) bill for operations and maintenance, though the city would add money from parking and a potential Public Improvement District. In 2013 dollars, that’s $15.5 million. As the American-Statesman pointed out, the estimate is lower than the operating costs of several urban rail lines and lower than the cost of Capital Metro’s commuter rail known as MetroRail. 


Capital costs in 2020 dollars include $750 million for construction, $40 million each for rail cars and rights-of-way, $240 million for professional services, and $330 million for unforeseen contingencies.


Keahey cited estimates of the project’s economic development impact from the UT consultants. By 2030, according to those calculations, the City of Austin would realize between $31.6 million and $44.4 million in property tax revenue attributable to the area within one-half mile of the rail route.


Not all of that can be considered new revenue, as Council Member Bill Spelman clarified, because the numbers include some property taxes that would have been collected anyway. Keahey said the team is working with UT Professor Robert Paterson to get “additional information on what is the base that we’re building on,” and to figure out how much money would come from outside Austin. He didn’t know when they’d have those figures.


The team expects between $5.9 million and $10.8 million in sales taxes from that half-mile strip around the project. It’s similarly unclear how much of that would be truly new money.


Spelman pressed Keahey on when the team would know more about those numbers.


“Even people who believe they will never, ever get on a train, will never personally benefit from rapid transit…might be persuaded by the economic development argument,” Spelman said.


Getting sharper numbers, Spelman added, would help sell the project to skeptics.


As for local returns, according to consultant URS Corporation, some $880 million would pay for local construction and professional services, resulting in $1.6 billion to $2.4 billion economic impact.


Keahey said later that people who don’t live near the line will also benefit because the project will take 8,000 cars off the road and reduce fights over parking at special events like South by Southwest.


Between $150 million and $200 million to buy things like train cars would, however, leave the region. 


Council Member Kathie Tovo asked where the city would need to buy rights-of-way.


At Hancock Center on Red River and 41st Streets, the train would turn east, causing a “corner clip” there, Keahey said. Engineering analyses early next year will determine whether that turn would remain within the city’s right-of-way or encroach on Groovy Automotive. Tunneling under Hancock would also mean acquiring 50 to 75 feet of right-of-way along the southbound I-35 frontage road, Keahey said.


Council Member Chris Riley asked Keahey to confirm that the team would report back about connecting to North Lamar Boulevard, Mueller, or East Austin on Aug. 1, as agreed last December. Keahey said they were on target to do that.


The Central Corridor Advisory Group is scheduled to develop a recommendation about an LPA on June 13. The Cap Metro Board will take action on the LPA on June 23 and the City Council on June 26. The City Council will decide Aug. 7 whether to hold a bond election to fund the project.

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