City and Cap Metro Contemplate How to Make a "Real City” Transit System
Following the slow march toward a vote on a multibillion-dollar investment in public transit
The slow, steady march continues toward an expected November vote on a multibillion-dollar investment in public transit, as City Council and Capital Metro officials met on Tuesday, Jan. 14, to discuss how to pay for the new and expanded services. Both the city and the transit authority emphasized how the plan envisioned by the Project Connect effort – with a price tag estimated at between $5 billion and $10 billion – represented a "once in a generation" chance to revolutionize mobility in Austin.
A transformed transit system is badly needed if Austin intends to accommodate the metro area's continued growth – expected to reach nearly 4 million people by 2040 – without making chronic traffic congestion exponentially worse and while meeting the community's ambitious climate goals. Austin voters have turned down plans for a citywide rail transit system in the past – in 2000, when the "Austin Area in Motion" plan was narrowly defeated, and in 2014, the first incarnation of Project Connect, which failed amid the city's transition to a 10-1 Council.
The current Project Connect vision is anchored by some form of "high-capacity transit" (HCT) – either a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) or Light Rail Transit (LRT) system – in dedicated right-of-way in a corridor along Lamar and Guadalupe north of Lady Bird Lake and along South Congress south of the river. That "spine," known as the Orange Line, would start north in Tech Ridge and end south at Slaughter Lane. A second HCT route, the Blue Line, would run from Austin Community College's Highland campus through Downtown and across the river, then east along Riverside out to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
The city and Cap Metro hope to prevail over previous voter skepticism by offering a "complete system" intended to appeal to people who may not live along the Orange or Blue Lines. For example, transit all the way to the airport does not have a significant impact on attaining the city's big mobility goal of shifting trips away from driving alone toward other modes (the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan envisions a 50-50 "mode split" by 2039). But it appeals to voters who may otherwise be less inclined to support the significant capital spending needed to build out transit in the city's urban core.
The Project Connect vision also includes new MetroRapid bus routes with frequent service (in addition to the current 801 and 803), MetroRail Green Line commuter rail service (to augment the current Red Line) running through East Austin and into Manor, and other system improvements. The planners and advocates behind Project Connect hope to translate this year's expected record-high voter turnout – as progressives seek to throw Donald Trump out of office and turn Texas blue – into support for an ambitious plan to change how people in Austin get around for generations to come.
Rail Costs More, Does More
An official recommendation on the Project Connect mode won't come until March, but the analysis conducted by Cap Metro staff points to rail as the obvious choice. With BRT – even one with a state-of-the-art fleet and logistics design that could cost between $3.2 billion and $5.5 billion – Cap Metro planners expect the bus system to be at its full ridership capacity by 2040.
"It is more expensive to do a rail system," Mayor Steve Adler told reporters before the meeting. "But we can move so many more people, and it's not going to hit capacity for generations. I'm not sure I'm comfortable spending billions of dollars for something that's going to hit capacity so quick."
Cap Metro staff are still working to determine when a LRT system would hit capacity, but David Couch, the transit agency's Project Connect program officer, said the rail system wouldn't hit capacity until "well beyond 2040." Moreover, rail would be able to move more people when it's fully built out – roughly 299,000 weekday riders at its max potential, compared to 258,000 with the BRT system. Both would more than double the current weekday ridership of the entire Cap Metro bus system.
The LRT options generated by the Project Connect team would cost $3.9 billion on the low end and $10.3 billion on the high end; each would be at least partially elevated above ground level, and (at a minimum cost of $6 billion) parts of the Orange and Blue Lines would go underground. That's right – a subway in Austin.
The Downtown tunnel option would allow the system's two HCT lines to avoid the mess of Downtown traffic, while preserving surface-level lanes for the crosstown buses that will connect the eastern and western parts of the city with the Orange and Blue lines. A tunnel would be expensive, but Couch called it a "very good construction technique" that would provide a "separation that is, basically, invaluable." Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, also interested in the tunnel idea, said, "That's what real cities do."
Clearly, a "real city" transit system isn't cheap. Transit advocates who lived through the 2014 defeat may feel a chill run down their spines as city leaders pitch another huge investment in rail to voters who've been repeatedly told that transit "costs too much and does too little." Tuesday's joint session between the city and Cap Metro was meant to demonstrate the commitment of Project Connect planners and advocates to being transparent about the funding scenarios.
But What About the Taxpayers?
If all goes to plan, Austin taxpayers wouldn't be on the hook for the full price to build out the new transit system. Project Connect planners anticipate Federal Transit Administration funding for at least 40% of capital costs. Recent Capital Investment Grants awarded through the FTA to other cities and transit authorities have constituted 42%, or as much as 53%, of those projects' funding.
Even with the most generous federal grant funding available, local taxpayers would still need to invest billions in the system. (The state of Texas does not fund transit out of its ample transportation dollars, though that may change as the state turns bluer.) Some of that local funding can be generated with fares and potentially higher vehicle emissions fees and parking revenue, but the majority of the money will need to come from voter-approved mechanisms – general obligation bonds, a property tax increase ratified in a tax rate election (TRE), or both. That's what Austin residents should expect to see on the ballot in November.
Bond programs are the standard vehicle for high-dollar municipal projects in Texas, but those revenues can only be used for capital costs, not for the ongoing maintenance and operations costs of transit service. A TRE would provide city leaders with money that could be used for both but offers its own set of challenges. Under Senate Bill 2 approved by the Texas Legislature in 2019 – the "revenue cap" legislation – city and county governments need voter approval to set tax rates that increase their revenue by more than 3.5% over the prior fiscal year. The election would identify specific uses for the additional revenue, and earmark that money for those uses if voters give the go-ahead. That means the state has effectively created a local-option property tax that Austin can use for a transit system – after having refused, for years and years, to extend to cities the authority to create dedicated sales taxes or motor vehicle fuel taxes for that purpose.
A dedicated source of ongoing funding, as Greg Canally, deputy chief financial officer for the city, explained, is required by the FTA grants the city and Cap Metro are counting on. "What [the FTA] cares about is not only the ability to have a dedicated stream for capital funding," he told reporters, "but also for operating the system [and] having a system in good repair in the long term."
As with a final recommendation on the transit mode, Project Connect planners are still working out a preferred funding scenario for the system – and, crucially, how much Austin taxpayers can expect to pay annually for either a bond program or a TRE. At the Tuesday meeting, CM Alison Alter was skeptical of the TRE idea, pressing staff for answers they don't have yet. "Simply saying we're going to have a tax election doesn't help us translate this," Alter said. "We need to explain to the community what we would be asking voters to shoulder."
Canally expects to return with final cost estimates in February, prior to the mode recommendation in March. In May, the city and Cap Metro plan to decide whether to call a November election, which would kick off an intense effort to sell the Project Connect vision to voters. If they succeed, engineering work would begin in 2021 to bring the new transit system to life.