The “green line,” a proposed 25-mile-long commuter rail line from Austin to Elgin on existing Capital Metro track, has been languishing as an untested and unfunded concept for about a decade now.
Not least among the obstacles preventing Capital Metro from building the project, now estimated to cost as much as $460 million: a requirement in state law that voters in Capital Metro’s Austin-dominated service area approve any passenger rail project. That law further stipulates that no rail extension can be longer than 12 miles, a distance that would get the green line only as far as Manor.
But two Austin Democrats in recent days have filed identical bills that could give the project something of a pulse. House Bill 1762, authored by state Rep. Celia Israel, and Senate Bill 858, from state Sen. Kirk Watson, would require a rail election only for Capital Metro passenger rail projects that exceed 30 miles in length.
Or about five miles longer than the distance contemplated for the green line.
The law wouldn’t apply to transit agencies in other Texas cities.
Watson said removing the current requirement for rail elections in most cases would allow Capital Metro, as it makes upgrades to its track between Austin and Elgin for existing freight rail operations, to “improve it to commuter rail standards at the same time. That’s just more efficient.”
Watson also said that with years-long construction projects coming to Interstate 35 in Austin and, perhaps later on, U.S. 290 between Manor and Elgin, commuters would appreciate a rail alternative.
“We’re going to need rail in this community at some point,” Watson said. “There’s a lot to be thought out on this project. But we’re in session, so let’s go ahead and take care of what we can.”
Retired tech executive Jim Skaggs, who has consistently opposed rail initiatives in Austin over the past two decades, said he had thought that Capital Metro lacked the money now to pursue rail projects and was surprised to hear about the Watson and Israel bills. Capital Metro expects to have about $80 million in savings at the end of the current fiscal year, but most of that is already committed to legally required operating reserves and planned expansions of the bus system and the existing MetroRail line from downtown Austin to Leander.
“I would hope that the Legislature would turn them down,” Skaggs said. But he noted that Capital Metro and the lawmakers carrying the bills have a strong argument: No other large city in Texas has such a requirement for an election to authorize rail projects.
The Texas Transportation Code, however, does stipulate that any transit authority in the state hold a public election if it intends to finance a project — of any kind, not just rail — using bonds that would be paid back from taxes. Capital Metro levies a 1 percent sales tax, the maximum allowed under state law. It could, with voter permission, issue revenue bonds and make debt payments from tax revenue.
The state law that allowed the creation of Capital Metro in 1985 didn’t require the agency to hold an election for permission to build rail. But with the agency closing in on a light rail plan in 1997, even as it struggled with its finances and leadership, the Legislature stepped in and imposed the election requirement for rail.
Capital Metro held a light rail election in 2000, and the idea was narrowly rejected by voters. The agency came back in 2004 with a much cheaper commuter rail plan, one that used 32 miles of a 161-mile freight line from Llano to Giddings that Capital Metro had acquired in the 1990s. That $90 million plan was approved with more than 60 percent of the vote, and the “red line” opened in 2010.
The opening was two years later than originally estimated, however, and the project cost at least $140 million, more than 50 percent above original projections. Beyond that, with just six rail cars and little siding track for passing, capacity and thus usage of the system has been limited. Daily ridership is under 3,000 boardings, and the agency is now in the midst of an $85 million project to add cars and siding tracks and to expand the downtown station.
The 2014 Austin rail election was a city of Austin proposal, not one sponsored by Capital Metro. Voters at that time were asked to authorize $1 billion in bonds, backed by a property tax increase, for both light rail and road construction. About 57 percent of voters rejected the bond proposition.