All Aboard? Austin’s Tentative Plans for New Light Rail

Transit planners are weighing one big choice for Austin’s future: light rail or bus rapid transit, a type of bus service with exclusive transit lanes and off-board fare collection.

At a joint meeting of the Capital Metro board and the Austin City Council on Tuesday, January 14 th, it looked like the mayor and a majority of council members were leaning toward the rail option.

The plan could result in a hefty tax hike, but political leaders say it’s worth it. “I know it’s a lot more money to do rail,” said Mayor Steve Adler, “But I think we need to spend the money so that we’re making a decision that’s good not just for a couple of years but for the next couple of generations.”

Austin currently has only one light rail line plus a growing bus network. The latest CapMetro ridership figures show an 8% year-on-year increase in December, the 15 thstraight month of gains.

CapMetro CEO Randy Clarke said, “We are actually starting to hit really serious capacity limits on some of our bus lines, especially at PM rush hour. The stresses on the system are starting to show.”

Project Connect — Quick Facts

CapMetro 101: CapMetro is the Austin area’s public transit provider, governed by a board representing the City, Travis and Williamson counties, neighboring small cities, and CAMPO, the Central Texas regional transportation board. CapMetro’s long-term strategic plan is called Project Connect.

Most of CapMetro’s revenue comes from a 1% sales tax, in addition to passenger fares. But the City of Austin is increasingly playing a more direct role in CapMetro’s finances; it payed $6 million of $7.8 million in preliminary engineering work for Project Connect in FY 2019.

$9.6 billion price tag: The transit scenario that city leaders seem to be leaning toward is a roughly $7.9 billion street-level light rail system with a downtown tunnel, plus $1.7 billion in improvements to existing transit infrastructure, for a total cost of $9.6 billion. Of this total, planners project that $5.8 billion would be raised locally and the rest would come from matching federal grants.

Cost per taxpayer: That price tag works out to about $5,800 per Austinite ($5.8 billion divided by Austin’s roughly 1 million people), though a share of the cost would be shouldered by outlying areas, and the cost would be spread over many years.

Orange Line: Project Connect features a newOrange Line light rail running north-south through central Austin from Crestview to South Congress, with potential future extensions north to Tech Ridge and south to Slaughter Lane.

Blue Line: Another line would run from the airport to the downtown and medical district, with an optional extension to ACC Highland.

Green Line: CapMetro owns a freight line between Austin, Manor, and Elgin, along which it could add passenger service for a cost of $460–510 million. This figure is included in the above tentative total cost, but it’s not yet clear whether the Green Line will be a priority.

Mayor Steve Adler holds up a map of the proposed Project Connect network, Jan. 14, 2020 (ATXN)

Downtown rail tunnel: Another ambitious yet optional element of Project Connect is a 1.6 mile tunnel along Guadalupe, 4 thSt., and Trinity. This would substantially add to cost but would be less disruptive to traffic. Without the tunnel, trains would be limited to three cars so as not to block roads when stopped in the downtown core. Mayor Adler seems to favor the tunnel option. “It makes sense to me,” he said.

CapMetro CEO Randy Clarke commented, “We have to build the downtown core correctly because it impacts everything around the network.” Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said, “Running surface rail through downtown would degrade compatible bus service.” Price tag: about $2 billion.

Elevated tracks: An even higher-cost option involves elevated rail tracks above city streets. It doesn’t look like the politicians have the appetite for that, and projected daily ridership in this scenario is only about 10% better than the street-level scenario. CapMetro CEO Clarke commented that elevated track is the “optimal transit build, but right now we don’t feel like that is going to be fully needed. It’s the worst case from a cost point of view.”

Add-ons: The overall price tag could be trimmed depending on which optional improvements to existing infrastructure the City Council and CapMetro board vote to approve (elements of the $1.7 billion component mentioned above). Prospective upgrades/extras include more MetroRapid bus service, a Red Line extension, more neighborhood circulators, the Green Line, and more.

In order to sell the project to voters, political leaders might feel compelled to add to the project rather than trimming it. Council Member Allison Alter remarked that the transit plan could be a “hard sell” to voters not living near one of the new rail lines, though she thinks they should be persuaded by the idea that more drivers overall will be off the roads, cutting back on congestion and commute times.

Tax hike: Judging by remarks Tuesday, CapMetro and City leaders are leaning toward a tax rate election for a special purpose tax rather than a bond election. One reason is that the city already conducted six bond elections since 2010, and it hadn’t planned on another one until 2024. Transit planners also point to downsides to a bond election, namely, that bond funds can only be used for capital improvements and not for operations and maintenance.

CapMetro officials on Tuesday didn’t make available an estimate of how much the tax hike would be.

Federal support: According to Reinet Mareneweck, CFO of CapMetro, Project Connect could attract substantial federal investment. The federal grant program for such projects, which depends on annual Congressional reauthorizations, grants a maximum of $100 million per year, but this can be spread over many years. The average federal share in major transit projects is about 45%.

Other funding sources: Additional potential sources of funding for the light rail project include higher passenger fares, parking fees at the park-and-rides, and a vehicle emissions tax of $4–6 per year per sedan and $8 per truck.

Next steps: A third-party consulting team are in town this week to work on cost estimates. City staff and CapMetro staff are expected to make recommendations to the council and CapMetro board in March. In May the council and board will vote on whether to approve the investment program, after which voters would get a say in November at either a bond referendum or tax rollback election.

View a Map of the Proposed Light Rail Network (PDF):

Originally published at on January 18, 2020.

Original reporting on local Austin news, Texas politics, and the economy.

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