I knew this would happen.
In late August, when the city of Austin unveiled a preliminary version of an urban rail economic analysis, a first-glance reading of its findings seemed to suggest that building a rail system would generate a cumulative $31 billion economic infusion for Austin by 2030. The equivalent of 100 Austonian high-rises going up, all because of a rail line. Pretty stout, eh?
In fact, the American-Statesman’s headline the next day was “Study sees $31 billion economic impact from rail line.” So, blame us, at least in part.
In writing the article below that headline, I tried to make a significant clarification: much of the development toted up in the study is in the pipeline already, the city’s economic growth director Kevin Johns told the City Council, meaning it would happen with or without rail. You may have noticed that Austin has been growing lately. A lot.
“We deliberately did not try to make the connection that you need urban rail to attract growth,” Johns said at the Aug. 29 meeting.
But despite that significant caveat, the city Transportation Department e-newsletter this week had this headline: “Economic study: Urban rail impact could reach $31 billion,” and the short article below that headline didn’t include any sort of qualifier about that growth happening even if Austin never builds a $1.3 billion (for now) urban rail system. And a column in the Sept. 6 Austin Business Journal said of the study’s various numbers that “the most impressive is $31 billion: the total amount of economic impact that an urban rail system could bring to the city of Austin by 2030.”
No, no, no, that’s not what’s in the study (which actually isn’t complete yet), according to the people working on it.
I looked at the PowerPoint presentation online, an updated version, and it says that urban rail in seven other cities had induced growth of between 2 percent to 50 percent. Pretty wide range there. And then I talked to the folks behind the “Case Study of Urban Rail.”
“There is a lot of evidence that rail does induce growth,” city project manager Greg Kiloh said. “It’s just very difficult to say how much that will be. There really isn’t a reliable algorithm you can plug in and say, ‘If rail, this or that.’”
But it is not, to repeat, $31 billion.
The point is, we Austinites are engaged in a debate about whether spending a lot of money on urban rail (and giving up car lanes in some cases for the train tracks) is a good idea. The city’s tentative plan is to have us vote in November 2014 to authorize several hundred million dollars of bonds for the first segment, which could run from downtown through the University of Texas to the Mueller neighborhood in East Austin.
And humongous numbers can sound awfully good in such a debate. “Vote for this rail thing, and you (Austin) get $31 billion.” Never mind that almost no one outside of City Hall or the McCombs School of Business would be able to put that number in any sort of meaningful context. But anyone hearing that would think of $31 billion, at the very least, as an awful lot.
For what it’s worth, the gross domestic product in the Austin-Round Rock-San Marcos area was about $90 billion in 2011.
To be fair, any political debate is full of numbers, and people will use them in the way most likely to advance their point of view. That includes rail opponents.
But economic development estimates, even if used fairly in debate, are by their very nature ephemeral, particularly looking out almost 20 years. The answers we voters really need are what exactly, city of Austin, do you want to build, and where, how much will it cost upfront, what will be the annual tab to operate it and, as long as we’re predicting the future, how many people will actually ride it at the beginning, and then later on?
City officials, who have been working on this project for five years now, told me in February that we would get some of those details this spring.
With a possible election now less than 14 months away, we’re still waiting.