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Green Line creeps forward at Commissioners Court

Wednesday, April 4, 2018 by Caleb Pritchard

The Travis County Commissioners Court voted in a split decision on Tuesday to initiate a study of potential financing options for the proposed commuter rail line between Austin and Manor known as the Green Line.

The move marks a small victory for the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority whose Project Connect initiative includes the Green Line as part of its draft high-capacity transit system plan. The agency estimates that building out the proposed network of 11 corridors deemed suitable for rail or rapid bus service could cost as much as $8 billion over the next three decades, a steep sum that may require help from outside jurisdictions such as the county or even the private sector to achieve.

Because it’s proposed to run on existing freight rail, the Green Line’s initial capital costs are relatively small compared to other corridors in Project Connect’s draft plan. The 15-mile Austin-to-Manor leg would take $264 million to build. Stretching it out another 12 miles to Elgin would run another $98 million. That potential extension won’t be considered under the county’s study, which could examine options such as tax benefit financing and other potential sources of funding.

Todd Hemingson, Capital Metro’s vice president of strategic planning and development, conceded to the court that the Green Line’s projected ridership is low. At an estimated 1,800 trips per day by 2025, the line would not even break into the agency’s top 10 busiest routes today.

“That needs to be no secret,” Hemingson affirmed before suggesting that what the Green Line lacks in potential ridership is made up for by its potential to deliver community benefits to an underinvested section of the county.

Furthermore, he suggested the line could create conditions conducive to future ridership.

“There’s one school of thought that says you build your best transit where the people already are, and then there’s another school of thought that says you build your transit because it can help shape future development,” Hemingson explained. He offered that Austin’s booming growth could allow both scenarios to be tested under the Project Connect aegis.

Commissioner Brigid Shea offered her full support for the Green Line, framing it as a long-term investment that could have a profound impact on the county’s future.

“When they built the subway system in New York everybody thought it was ridiculous,” Shea said. “And so I think it makes all the sense in the world that if you put the transportation infrastructure in a place, it creates the impetus for more development along that line.”

Less warm to the idea was Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, a legendary opponent of rail projects in the region. He pointed out that coastal cities where transit is most successful tend to have levels of population density that have been politically impossible to achieve in Austin. As for the economic development argument, Daugherty said, “I’m not opposed to creating a situation where you can have as much economic development as can possibly be in (the) east. I’m just saying that you don’t have to do something like a fixed guideway rail line in order to achieve that.”

The Green Line would run primarily through Precinct 1, the domain of Commissioner Jeff Travillion, who endorsed the idea of the study.

“Is it a magic bullet? No, it’s not a magic bullet, but it creates the synergy, I think, that is necessary to make sure this corridor grows in a manageable way and doesn’t sprawl out,” he said.

In the end the court voted 3-2, with Daugherty and Commissioner Margaret Gómez opposed, for commission staff and the county’s financial adviser, PFM, to develop a scope for the proposed study. County Judge Sarah Eckhardt suggested that it could include not just the economic potential of the Green Line corridor itself but also enhanced bus service along U.S. Highway 290 and other area roadways.

Diana Ramirez, county director of economic development and strategic investments, told the Austin Monitor that the scope will be as broad as possible when it comes back to the court for final approval in several weeks.

Map courtesy of Capital Metro.

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