Big, Bold, and Costly: Austin’s Makes a Third Try at Rail Transit

The train is here

Going Underground! For a lot of people, the new plan's big-ticket inclusion of an underground transit tunnel and (at least) two subway stations scratches that big-city itch. While many cities' main train stations are larded with retail and commercial space, Capital Metro is trying to manage expectations for exactly how much secondary development there could be (and how much revenue it could produce to help pay for Project Connect operations). The concepts for the underground Downtown stations have been of particular interest to developers making plays to build skyscrapers above them, as well as the city's team exploring an expansion of the Austin Convention Center. (Image courtesy of Capital Metro)

Twenty years after the narrow defeat of Capital Metro's first light rail plan by fewer than 2,000 votes in the same election that brought you Bush vs. Gore, an Austin with about 50% more people will almost certainly, this November, have another chance – maybe its last? – to get onboard with a big-city mobility system. Cap Metro and the city of Austin have unveiled their recommended Project Connect (2.0) plan for high-capacity transit in Austin – an investment of nearly $10 billion ($6 billion in local funds) in light rail in the Lamar/Guadalupe/South Congress corridor (the Orange Line) and along East Riverside to the airport (the Blue Line), both serving underground Downtown stations within a new transit tunnel and with new crossings of Lady Bird Lake.

The plan includes MetroRail enhancements and more and better bus service and transit centers on multiple new routes – what Capital Metro president and CEO Randy Clarke termed a “comprehensive citywide transit expansion.”

That price tag also includes bus rapid transit, with plans to convert to rail in the future, to serve UT and ACC Highland (the Gold Line); upgrades to the current MetroRail Red Line (and, down the road, the new Green Line); and more and better bus service and transit centers on multiple new routes – what Capital Metro president and CEO Randy Clarke termed a "comprehensive citywide transit expansion." The transit authority unveiled its technical proposals for modes and alignments Friday – before the declaration of a local public health disaster due to COVID-19 and the cancellation of South by Southwest. On Monday, March 9, City Council and the Cap Metro board of directors received those recommendations, along with their staffers' current thinking about how to best pay for and manage both the construction and operations of the system.

Serving the Suburbs: Unlike with the Downtown stations, Capital Metro wants to, at least modestly, raise expectations for what future park-and-rides and transit centers will look and feel like so that those outlying taxpayers and voters can see themselves using the future system. For park-and-rides, they'll at least have restrooms, bike storage, and the obligatory food trucks; at intermodal transit centers (where bus meets rail, such as at Riverside and Pleasant Valley, the Domain, or the North Lamar Transit Center at U.S. 183), Capital Metro wants to preserve the option for full-on vertical transit-oriented development à la Saltillo and Midtown Commons. (Images courtesy of Capital Metro)

What Comes Next

Monday's joint meeting at the Central Library kicked off close to three months of community input (on top of efforts to date that have, according to Cap Metro, engaged 40,000 Austinites) with a final revised recommendation slated for approval by the two policymaking bodies on May 28. That then sets the stage for a November election, which won't need to be called officially until August – extra time that might be needed to work out the details of system financing.

Capital Metro president and CEO Randy Clarke (Photo by Jana Birchum)

To build out all of what’s been included here in 30 years, city staff estimates the equivalent of a 9- to 10-cent property tax increase, or about $24 to $27 a month for the median homeowner.

What's on the table now is a tax ratification election (TRE) within the city of Austin for an ongoing funding stream (outside the 3.5% revenue cap mandated last year by the Texas Legislature) sufficient to satisfy the Federal Transit Administration's requirements for local match funding. This is basically the same strategy Central Health used in 2012 to dedicate funding to UT's Dell Medical School and its associated clinics, and by Austin ISD in 2008 to increase teacher salaries. Going for a TRE, as opposed to bond funding, allows the city to invest its funds in both capital and operations costs. Capital Metro, heavily dependent on its 1-cent sales tax to fund its current system, basically has no money to spare but estimates it can contribute between $60 million and $100 million annually for operations by 2028, when the Project Connect team estimates the Orange and Blue lines could begin operation. For a scenario that builds out all of what's been included in Project Connect (2.0) in 30 years, the staff estimates the equivalent of a 9- to 10-cent property tax increase, or about $24 to $27 a month for the median homeowner. To build out the system faster would require a higher tax rate; nixing the underground elements reduces the cost substantially, but planners note that other cities who went the cheaper street-level route now wish they'd gone for tunnels and are looking at expensive retrofits.

What Came Before

The previous incarnation of Project Con­nect – the rail plan defeated decidedly by voters in the chaotic 2014 election that marked Austin's transformation to a 10-1 council – was priced at $1.4 billion. The 2000 rail plan, including its second-phase extensions (which would have been built by now), cost about $1.7 billion in today's dollars. The 2020 proposal combines elements of both those plans, and adds high-ticket items like the Downtown underground stations, MetroRail expansion (much of it slated to happen after the Orange and Blue lines are built), and new lake crossings. Project Connect planners, echoing political leaders at the city and Cap Metro, acknowledge the proposal is a big lift, but a necessary one given how far behind Austin now is in investing in the mobility systems the endlessly growing region needs. "How do we recover from years of not having something in place?" Capital Metro's Dave Couch asked reporters on Thursday, March 5. "We believe the benefits from the investment will be transformational."

Council member and Cap Metro board member Ann Kitchen (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Cap Metro engagement chief Jackie Nir­en­berg told reporters that she and her team "have a long way to go" to get as much feedback as they want, but are "confident we can touch a lot more folks between now and May, and then over the summer." In the works are community meetings all over town in each Council district, a virtual open house for those who'd need or prefer to provide input online, a high-visibility presence at community events (to the degree possible during the COVID-19 crisis), and door-to-door surveys "in neighborhoods where we need to get more feedback, from voices we don't often hear from." Nirenberg claims the Project Connect team has engaged thus far with 40,000 people over the last two years.

The city's Deputy Chief Financial Officer Greg Canally, meanwhile, is working now with a consultant to outline the governance structure for a new city/Cap Metro joint venture, with its own board, to manage the stream of mobility funding. The two entities are empowered under state law to create jointly a local government corporation without taking it to the voters, and Council Member Ann Kitchen, who also serves on the Cap Metro board and chaired the Coun­cil Mobility Committee, posited the potential benefit of doing so before a November election. Her colleague Jimmy Flannigan, who'll be up for reelection this November, said "I'm excited to share the ballot with such a referendum. This is really an opportunity to solve problems with tools that weren't available in the past, with a process that wasn't followed in the past," referring to the failed 2014 effort. (Both Kitchen and Flannigan ran for Council in 2014 alongside the Project Connect referendum, which was opposed by most of the people running in the 10 new districts, including Don Zim­mer­man, who beat Flannigan in D6 and then lost their 2016 rematch.)

Rail on the Roads: The city's Austin Strategic Mobility Plan, adopted last year, calls for implementing "transit priority treatments" throughout the Project Connect network – for the rail and BRT routes, that is assumed to be dedicated right-of-way. Whether that can be done without sacrificing any current auto lane miles remains to be seen, but on East Riverside in particular, much of that ROW already is available, as illustrated here. Capital Metro has presented concepts for both joint- and split-platform stations – the latter being implemented in other cities as a response to concerns about rail blocking traffic at intersections. (Images courtesy of Capital Metro)

What's on the Line?

Some more details on the technical recommendation:

Orange and Blue lines: The Orange Line is the "Guadalamar" route from the North Lamar Transit Center at U.S. 183, south past UT along (and perhaps above) the Drag, through Downtown and across Lady Bird Lake, and then along South Congress to Stassney. The Blue Line would run from the airport (directly from the terminal) along East Riverside into Downtown, and then "interline" with the Orange Line heading north, meaning headways of five minutes along the city's busiest transit route. Both of these lines would use the dedicated transitways prescribed in the city's Austin Strategic Mobility Plan, which Couch emphasizes is crucial for their success. It remains to be seen, via the next round of engineering and environmental studies, whether that means taking additional right-of-way on currently congested corridors, building the rail lines above or below grade, or taking existing auto lanes (which city leaders, including Mayor Steve Adler, have all but promised not to do). Extensions of the Orange Line north (to Tech Ridge) and south (to Slaughter Lane) are envisioned for future phases, with the existing 801 MetroRapid bus filling the gaps until then.

BRT Gold Line: This busway, also in a dedicated lane, would run from Republic Square over to Cap Metro's Downtown Station, then up the east side of Downtown and the UT campus up to ACC Highland – in effect, the northern leg of the rail route proposed in 2014. It would be suitable for future conversion to light rail; however, it is currently planned to reach Highland on the opposite side as the Red Line, so there would not be a combined station there. Clarke said it's possible that projected demand and additional federal funding – particularly under a new president – could lead to building out the Gold Line as rail from the outset.

Austin Underground Transit Tunnel: The plan recommends 1.6 miles of subway Down­town, including at least two stations (basically below the Con­ven­tion Center and Republic Square) with big-city amenities (retail, restaurants, restrooms, and air conditioning); the tunnel would extend north nearly to UT and might, pending an ongoing feasibility study, extend below the lake; otherwise, the plan calls for two new bridge crossings. Couch told reporters that cities such as Ottawa, Seattle, Phoenix, and Los Angeles that built systems at street level are now planning below-ground retrofits. "With all the constraints and components found in the Downtown environment, we're instead looking to do that at the very beginning," he said, noting it would make Aus­tin's system "a little faster, much safer, more reliable, and would benefit everyone, not just in the center of the city but throughout the whole system."

Other elements: Also in the plan are seven new MetroRapid routes, 14 new park-and-rides and/or transit centers, the larger of which could anchor transit-oriented development projects (both commercial and residential); 10 potential transit hubs outside the current Capital Metro service area (e.g., Pflugerville, Round Rock, Buda/Kyle), pending future partnership agreements; additional circulators similar to the current Pickup; electric buses (as well as the rail and BRT vehicles) and EV charging stations at park-and-rides; more frequency (via double-tracking), more vehicles, and two new stations on the MetroRail Red Line (at the new Austin FC stadium on McKalla Place and at the Domain); and creation of the long-promised Green Line serving the Eastside out to Colony Park, with future service to Manor and Elgin.

The System Map

The Project Connect (2.0) alignment plan has absorbed, merged, and sorted out (by mode) all the routes that have been championed over the past 25 years.

The light rail Orange Line is what was, in 2000, the Green Line – the "Guadalamar" alignment that has been, is now, and (perhaps) always will be the city's busiest transit corridor.

The light rail Blue Line is half of what voters rejected in 2014 – running from Downtown along East Riverside to the airport – but has yielded its northern half to the separate Gold Line, planned now as bus rapid transit but convertible to rail when needed. Instead, the Blue Line would now "interline" with the Orange, delivering 5-minute frequency from Republic Square to the North Lamar Transit Center.

The north and south ends of the Orange Line are future extensions to be served (as they are now) by MetroRapid bus lines; an additional seven MetroRapid lines are planned to extend Capital Metro's reach (and the billions to be invested in Project Connect) to politically essential communities in the Eastern Crescent, the northern tech belt, and the booming far south.

The existing MetroRail Red Line gets two new stations to serve the Domain and McKalla Place soccer stadium; the future Green Line uses the same technology to go east to Colony Park and eventually to Manor and Elgin.

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Capital Metro, Project Connect, MetroRail, Randy Clarke, transit, rail transit, 2020 rail plan, Federal Transit Administration, Dave Couch, Jackie Nir­en­berg, Greg Canally, Ann Kitchen, Jimmy Flannigan, Coun­cil Mobility Committee, Austin Strategic Mobility Plan, MetroRapid

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