As the population of Greater Austin nears 2 million, the surrounding Central Texas communities are continuing to face the mounting challenges of rapid urbanization and sprawling development.
Like other cities in the region, Georgetown is attempting to preserve its historical charm while also meeting new infrastructure demands. Membership in the Lone Star Rail District, a regional commuter rail service that will link up cities along the Interstate 35 corridor, will be an important step toward preparing Georgetown for the forecasted doubling of Williamson County’s population by 2035.
The rail project has enjoyed widespread support from the people of Georgetown, but suspicion and inflexibility from some members of the city council.
In June of this year, despite overwhelming public support for continued membership in the rail district (more than 90 percent of citizens spoke in favor of rail at the council meeting), the city council voted 6-1 to remove Georgetown from the rail district.
The arguments presented by the opponents to passenger rail — based largely upon discredited claims borrowed from the Cato Institute — were clear: the city could not afford membership in a transportation network that would destroy the local historic character, bring crime and disease to the community, increase property taxes, and restrict the freedom and sovereignty enjoyed by the good citizens of Georgetown.
This commentary respectfully challenges those claims.
For a burgeoning medium-size city with no current public transportation options, commuter rail is a welcome addition. Rail would help insulate Georgetown’s economically vital historic district from gridlock and austere parking garages while encouraging ancillary public transportation routes from the tourist-centered downtown to Southwestern University, Sun City, the new conference center, and the new rail station.
Xenophobic arguments about increased crime and disease associated with commuter rail are not only implicitly racist and classist, they are without any empirical backing. A recent Journal of Urban Affairs study found that there is no significant evidence to support claims that crime increases in proximity to rail stations, and instead suggested that property crimes may actually decrease. No scholarly evidence exists to support the fear that rail brings infectious disease. Instead, numerous studies from such journals such as the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Health & Place, and the American Journal of Public Health agree that the benefits of mass transit translate into millions of dollars in health care savings to a community because of increased physical exercise and access to health services.
Contrary to the claims made by rail opponents, the proposed funding for the operation and maintenance of the rail station has been intentionally detached from the existing property tax structure in Georgetown. Instead of raising taxes on current residents, financing will be tied to sales taxes in a Tax Increment Financing Zone near the rail station. This is a frequently utilized strategy for transit-oriented development that even some rail critics have admitted is a sound approach. Additionally, funding for the federally required environmental impact assessment will be shouldered by the rail district, a savings of at least $1.6 million dollars that would otherwise accrue to the City of Georgetown if it were to attempt its own study.
Perhaps most importantly, critiques of passenger rail overlook the economic multiplier effect that public transportation brings to a growing city. Echoing similar results from previous studies, a recent article in the academic journal Urban Studies found that municipal cost-benefit analyses significantly undervalue the benefits of mass transit systems, largely because they do not account for the agglomeration effect of increased productivity, higher wages, exchange of ideas, and greater access to services.
In the previous two city council meetings, public sentiment was clear. With maximum capacity in the council chamber exceeded, a diverse crowd of local business owners, Sun City residents, Southwestern students, and other Georgetown citizens overwhelmingly spoke in favor of rail. They requested better access to employment opportunities, health care services, internships, entertainment, and nearby friends and family. They requested a means of transport to Austin and San Antonio that would allow them to avoid rising fuel costs, stressful commutes, and increasing traffic congestion. With a 3-3 vote that required a tie-breaker from the mayor, the decision to withdraw from the rail district was temporarily reversed, ensuring that this issue will continue to remain contentious for at least the next year.
The people of Georgetown have asked their city leaders for freedom, choice, and mobility. They have requested support for the kind of infrastructure projects that build clean, safe, sustainable communities. They deserve the support of their elected officials, and they deserve the support of the surrounding communities.
Long is an assistant professor of environmental studies at Southwestern Univeristy in Georgetownjlong@southwestern.edu.