Georgetown city staff are trying to determine what could happen once the U.S. Census Bureau releases its urban area designations this spring and what effect it would have on public transportation services in the city.

Two possible scenarios show the city's designation becoming a small-urbanized area or becoming part of the Austin urbanized area.

"We are holding out hope for the small-urban [designation]," Georgetown Transportation Services Director Ed Polasek said. "If we are no longer rural and we go to some type of urban we would lose [Capital Area Rural Transportation System] service, which means that people that get the door-to-door service—the Medicaid and Medicare on-demand service—would [lose that] because CARTS cannot provide that service in an urban area."

The city currently provides CARTS, an on-demand bus service for cities with populations less than 50,000, with up to $10,000 in social services funding per year.

"For $10,000 a year, we are getting probably $500,000 to $600,000 of service for the city that CARTS is matching with the state and federal funds," Polasek said.

If the city is labeled a small-urban area, the city could receive state and federal funding to create its own transit service; under the large-urban designation, federal funding would go to Capital Metro to be used at its discretion, and the state funding would no longer be available, he said.

"If we do find we are large-urban, we are going to be scrambling to talk to Capital Metro to find out what our options are, talk to Round Rock about their experiences and try to work it out so we potentially won't have a gap in services," Polasek said.

City staff could make a recommendation to City Council for a rural-urban district with CARTS, Polasek said. In that scenario, the city could contract with CARTS to provide potentially expanded services, be the recipient of state and federal funding, and handle the paperwork and accounting, he said.

"We wouldn't have the staff to do it ourselves, so that's the option we are looking at as the most viable for the city. CARTS still has to make the decision as to whether or not they want to do that," Polasek said.

A potential business and operating plan could be presented to the Georgetown Transportation Advisory Board at its Feb. 10 meeting.

"They will make that designation in the spring, and at the end of the fiscal year, which is in October, the current service is gone," Polasek said. "We've been talking about [a possible budget shortfall], and we know that there are going to be some tough decisions, but this is a program that is vitally important."

Urban designation

Although the city's 2010 census population was less than 50,000—the threshold that would have triggered automatic changes in operational responsibilities and state and federal funding processes—the area surrounding the city could be considered by the bureau as part of the urbanized area.

"This is not something that cities or counties are given a say in, per se. It is one of those things that is determined solely by the U.S. Census Bureau," said Meredith Highsmith, assistant research scientist with the Texas Transportation Institute's Transit Mobility Program. "The calculations are determined using urban criteria, by computer analysis of census tracts and the urbanized area is, of course, not defined by city limits."

The population in areas outside the city limits, such as the Serenada neighborhood, which is surrounded by areas in the city limits, could be counted toward the city's urbanized area, Georgetown Principal Planner Jordan Maddox said. Highsmith said TTI estimates the Georgetown area's population is 52,400.

"All we can do is take the criteria that [the Census] released and analyze it to the best of our abilities," Highsmith said, adding that the urbanized area designations could be different than her expectations.

Two criteria that could impact the designation are "jump" connections along roadways, and impervious cover—the area covered by structure or pavement—and how it connects urban areas.

"One of the things that qualify as a jump is when the urbanized areas are 2.5 miles or less apart," Highsmith said, noting that according to TTI estimates, the southern portion of Georgetown's urbanized area is approximately 2.55 miles away from the northern edge of the estimated Austin urbanized area. "There are a lot of other factors that can come into play here, and this is where the U.S. Census Bureau will make its designation."