Friday, December 11, 2009

Is Austin Light Rail Just an Overcooked Student Bus Service?

Austin just approved $1 million to study a possible light rail line that would run between a redeveloped neighborhood where its old airport sat to its new airport southeast of town. This would be in addition to the planned commuter rail line that was supposed to open this year, and is now planned to launch next March, although they just fired the contractor who was supposed to operate it.

At just 8 million square feet, Austin's CBD accounts for only 20% of the region's office space, and is not much larger than an off-ramp office submarket like Fair Oaks near DC, or Burlington near Boston. Therefore, office workers will not be enough to sustain a light rail line as they would be in a larger city. Moreover, many of the western submarkets that dominate Austin's class A inventory sit on hills that make constructing new tracks cost prohibitive without far greater densities than are likely to exist over the next 30 years.

The light rail line would therefore be a high-end university bus system, allowing UT students access to South Congress and the airport. Its projected cost of $30 million per track mile is relatively low because it will run as a streetcar through much of downtown, and because unlike Seattle, there are no tunnels going into the project. Nonetheless, the cost would likely increase if the project were delayed.

The city is trying to get a rail line referendum on the ballot for November 2010. While the estimated 32,000 riders is probably engineered a bit in order to meet Fed Transit Admin. ridership/dollar projections, this is a unique project because it would be an expensive toy if forced to depend on transporting city residents to their jobs.

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