New Rail Options for Capital Metro

Sharp cuts in federal transit funding have left Capital Metro with an ever-increasing need to sell bonds in order to finance a light rail starter line, at a time when voters appear extremely reluctant to approve new indebtedness. In October, consultants advised Capital Metro on an alternative: Upgrade 29 miles of the Austin & Northwestern Railway for passenger use rather than ask for a public referendum on building a new light rail line. In 1985, Capital Metro paid $9 million for the Austin & Northwestern line, which runs from Leander to East Austin, where it connects to downtown along East Fifth Street. The transit agency faces the prospect of soon shelling out up to $110 million to repair the line for continued freight hauling. For $40 million more, it could upgrade the line to carry passengers on diesel- or natural-gas-powered "rail buses." These are similar to electric light rail vehicles in appearance, but do not require the more expensive infrastructure needed for electrical power.

A big disadvantage is that the Austin & Northwestern is not a direct route to downtown, UT, or the new Bergstrom Airport, like the previously planned 24-mile light rail starter line. According to Jim Robertson, Capital Metro's Manager for Long Range Development, frequent small buses or vans would "rapid-fire" passengers to UT or downtown from a train transfer station in north central Austin. There would be similar connections to Bergstrom and to park-and-ride lots for southern commuters on south
I-35. A major advantage is that the rail corridor passes through the heart of the Williamson County area where half of future metropolitan growth is predicted to take place. And converting the line to transit would cost only a third of the estimated $450 million needed to construct a light rail starter line. Capital Metro would be able to finance the conversion out of current revenue, without issuing bonds, though voters might eventually be asked to approve up to $430 million in bonds to build two connecting light rail lines.

Robertson says that even without the connecting light rail lines, the Northwestern passenger rail conversion is a good deal: "You provide opportunities for reverse commuting of people in lower income groups of East Austin to good jobs in the northwest, as well as providing opportunity for people in the northwest to get to UT and jobs downtown." The Austin & Northwestern also runs close to Mueller Airport, and future high-density or mixed-use redevelopment there could provide a third major activity center on the line, adds Robertson. The transit agency will probably launch a campaign for public involvement in the Austin & Northwestern plan in January. If the Capital Metro board approves the plan in 1996, passenger service could begin by 2000.

Capital Metro is also participating in a study of a regional commuter rail line extending from Round Rock to San Antonio. It would follow the MoPac rail line through Austin, with light rail connections to downtown and Bergstrom. ATS officials appear to be strongly in favor of the idea, and are scheduled to meet with their San Antonio counterparts on March 27 to discuss this, along with construction of a freeway bypass to I-35 in the MoKan corridor east of Austin. -- N.E.

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