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Capital Metro could get permission to bypass voter approval of MetroRail extension

Tuesday, February 14, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

State Rep. Celia Israel and state Sen. Kirk Watson have filed legislation at the Capitol that would make it much easier for the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority to expand its commuter rail service.

On Friday, Israel filed House Bill 1726, which would allow the agency to build the proposed Green Line addition to MetroRail without having to first ask for voters’ permission. Watson filed a companion bill, Senate Bill 858, on Monday afternoon.

Long featured on Capital Metro’s wishlist of projects, the Green Line would carry commuters from Elgin, Manor and Decker Lake into downtown Austin.

The current statute requires the agency to put any proposed passenger rail system expansion up for a vote. It also limits expansion proposals to “not more than 12 miles of track.” Israel’s bill would rewrite the law to require elections only when extensions of more than 30 miles are on the table. That condition would allow the 28-mile Green Line to bypass the ballot box.

Much like Capital Metro’s Red Line service, which connects Leander to downtown Austin, the proposed Green Line route consists of existing freight rail that would be converted to passenger use.

“We have a freight partner who is making improvements to the line now, and it would be financially beneficial if we could partner with them to improve the line up to commuter standards as well,” agency spokesperson Mariette Hummel told the Austin Monitor. “With the explosive growth in East Austin and Manor, Capital Metro believes this will become a priority corridor.”

Capital Metro’s Amy Peck told the Monitor that the Green Line is one of 31 different corridors under consideration as a long-term transit investment in the recently rebooted Project Connect planning process. But, she cautioned, “It is too early to be looking at modes on specific corridors.””

“The important thing to remember, though, is that we’ll not look at corridors individually (or stand-alone), but instead (take) an overall systematic approach,” Peck said.

Even if Israel and Watson’s bills survive the legislature, the Green Line is not guaranteed to leave the planning station very quickly.

Documents distributed to members of the Multimodal Community Advisory Committee indicate that the Green Line ranks as a second-tier commuter corridor behind Interstate 35, a double-tracked Red Line and the proposed MoKan Line.

Furthermore, a 2015 Capital Metro presentation to the city of Austin’s Urban Transportation Commission identified the Green Line as “a lower priority project (beyond 2020) in the Project Connect plan.” That same presentation stated that the corridor lacks transit-supportive density, something that could be corrected by cities encouraging more development along the route.

A 2008 study suggested that ridership on the Green Line would fall between 7,000 and 12,000 daily passengers by 2030 if trains were to run every 20 minutes during peak hours. By comparison, the Red Line, which runs every 30 minutes, provided an average of 2,752 weekday trips last fall.

The same 2008 study also estimated capital costs ranging from $360 million to $460 million and operating and maintenance costs coming in at somewhere between $7 million and $16 million each year. According to the UTC presentation, those numbers were “updated to 2015.”

On Friday, Israel filed two more bills that would affect Capital Metro. HB 1763 would delete a section of the Texas Transportation Code that requires the agency to provide certain annual reports to cities in its service area. Meanwhile, HB 1764 would broaden the method of measuring performance indicators by including service operated by outside contractors.

Watson’s spokesperson, Kate Alexander, said the senator would file a single companion bill to parallel HB 1763 and HB 1764.

Capital Metro’s Hummel described those measures as “statutory cleanup bills.”

“During our quadrennial review, it became apparent that some of our statute is out of date. For example, we no longer directly employ our maintenance and operation staff,“ Hummel said.

Meanwhile, a fourth bill filed by Israel would have a more direct impact on transit service. Last Wednesday, she submitted HB 1656, which would allow Capital Metro buses to operate on Texas Department of Transportation-owned highway shoulders throughout the five member counties of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Both Israel and Watson had filed similar legislation during the previous session, but neither effort succeeded. Alexander told the Monitor on Monday that Watson has not yet decided to join Israel in trying again.

This story has been changed since publication to reflect the fact that the Project Connect Central Corridor Study has been rebranded as “Project Connect.”

Photo by Greg3564 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.

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