A majority of Georgetown City Council members are balking at the cost of remaining in a transportation collaborative that would build a commuter rail system from Bexar to Williamson County.
If it backs out, Georgetown would not be a stop on the line being planned by the Lone Star Rail District, which aims to link the city to Austin and San Antonio within the next six to 10 years.
Georgetown has been paying an annual $50,000 membership fee since 2006, but a majority of the city council decided last week to put together a resolution to cancel the membership. They will vote whether to pass the resolution at their next regular meeting on Tuesday.
If Georgetown pulls out of the district, then the train line might end in Round Rock if Round Rock decides to join the district, said Joe Black, the district’s director. The train also might be extended out to Hutto or Taylor if those cities decide to join, said Black.
The proposed 118-mile, 16-station rail line would run mostly on already existing Union Pacific tracks. The estimated cost to build it to run with 12 round-trips a day is a “little less than $2 billion,” Black said. Those costs include building another railroad line for Union Pacific freight to use to make up for the loss of its tracks to the district, Black said.
The estimated operating and maintenance costs of the train are $30 million annually, he said.
Tommy Gonzalez, who was one of the five Georgetown city council members who supported the resolution to leave the district, said at the council meeting June 11 that a citizen survey conducted by the city last year showed 65 percent of Georgetown residents opposed paying taxes to support the rail system. “I am one of the 65 percent who feel the money could be better spent,” he said.
He said the city already faces spending more money for its bus services, since Georgetown lost federal funding due to the city’s population increase.
The other city council members who wanted to leave the district said Georgetown could not pay for the operating costs of the train because it didn’t have enough people to ride it. “Everything I have heard and everyone I have talked to tells me this system is going down the pike to an unaffordable destination,” said council member Steve Fought.
Georgetown city council member Troy Hellmann said the city needed commuter rail, not the passenger rail system the district was offering.Commuter rail would travel a shorter distance between Austin and Georgetown and would run more frequently than passenger rail, said Hellmann.
Georgetown city council member Patty Eason, one of two city council members who voted against considering the resolution to leave the district, said the survey question was flawed because property taxes from residents will not be used to support the rail. Eason is also Georgetown’s representative on the board of directors for the rail district.
Black said Eason was correct. “We’ve never made a tax request to any local jurisdiction,” he said. “I think a lot of the decision to propose the resolution was based on a lot of mistaken information. “
The district is hoping to receive money from tax district zones created around train stations which would collect a certain portion of property taxes from the businesses and developments within the zones, he said. These taxes would not be gathered from residential property owners, he said. Cities and counties will have to pay for operation and maintenance but the district will tailor service to make it affordable, Black said.
Black said he didn’t expect for cities and counties to pay for operations through property taxes but with money from the tax district zones and supplemental sources such as parking revenues or increases in sales taxes.
Arden Trevino, the president of the board for Georgetown Palace Theatre, was one of several people at the council meeting who spoke in support of the train. She said it would help attract tourists and increase the appeal of Southwestern University because people could ride the train to see football games.
Michelle Brown, who also spoke at the hearing, didn’t agree.
“Rail won’t help tourists come to Georgetown,” she said. “It will help people leave.”