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Capital Metro gives green light to Green Line

Wednesday, August 1, 2018 by Ryan Young

On Monday, the board of directors of the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority voted to study a hotly debated commuter rail line that could stretch from downtown Austin to as far away as Elgin.

The Green Line would be very similar to Capital Metro’s existing MetroRail Red Line that runs from downtown to Leander. Like the Red Line, the Green Line would use diesel-powered rail cars and run on existing freight tracks that Capital Metro already owns.

The Green Line corridor begins in downtown Austin and splits from the existing Red Line just past the Plaza Saltillo station. It runs via Govalle, Colony Park and Manor and terminates in downtown Elgin.

Capital Metro has already examined the Green Line proposal as part of Project Connect, the agency’s ongoing high-capacity transit study. Project Connect projects 1,800 daily rides in 2025 if the service is built out to Manor and 1,900 if it is extended all the way to Elgin.

Supporters of the Green Line say the project would provide high-quality transit service to an economically disadvantaged corner of the county and give future residents the option to take the train instead of contributing to traffic on U.S. Highway 290. But detractors – including some transit boosters – say the number of riders using the Green Line would be far too low to justify its estimated $284 million construction cost.

Such fears may be justified, because when it comes to rail transit, Capital Metro has a history of overestimating future ridership and lowballing construction costs.

When voters approved the Red Line in 2004, Capital Metro said refurbishing the track, building the stations and purchasing the rail cars would cost $90 million. But as the Austin American-Statesman reported in Sept. 2017, the Red Line construction tab – after upgrades to the track to allow more frequent service and a federally mandated safety system upgrade – topped $299 million.

And as of June 2018, the Red Line’s ridership stands at 2,717 weekday boardings, a far cry from the 6,900 Capital Metro originally projected by 2017.

But such criticisms didn’t faze the board, who expressed strong support for the Green Line study.

“We really have to look at our gaps and look at the communities that have their bus services ending at seven in the evening,” said Board Member Jeff Travillion, who is also a Travis County commissioner and a prominent champion of the Green Line. “I think this gives us the opportunity not only to look at some areas that are outside our service area, but need assistance.”

Travillion called the Green Line interlocal agreement an “excellent first step” and a “well-conceived plan.”

Travis County will conduct the study under the auspices of Capital Metro’s Service Expansion Policy, a program through which Capital Metro makes Federal Transit Administration funds available to local municipalities that are not part of the agency’s service area.

The study will cost $44,000 and determine if it is feasible to build the proposed line. If so, the study will examine potential financing options. The FTA will provide $35,200 through the Service Expansion Policy, while Travis County will cover the remaining $8,800, per the policy’s 20 percent match requirement.

“The work that we’re doing to collaborate outside of service area with whatever jurisdiction – the county, in this particular case; Georgetown, Round Rock, Hutto, Pflugerville – really is as important as just about anything we’re doing in terms of creating a regional system,” Chair Wade Cooper said.

Map courtesy of Capital Metro.

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