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Transportation

Leander will vote May 7 on whether to leave CapMetro's service area

A train at Leander's MetroRail commuter rail station on Jan. 20, 2021
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
Leander is the last stop on Capital Metro's commuter rail line. The city would lose MetroRail access if voters choose to opt out of the transit system.

Voters in Leander will decide this spring if the city should stay in Capital Metro's service area. Leander's City Council voted 5-2 Tuesday night to call an election for May 7.

If voters choose to end the city's 37-year membership in CapMetro, millions of dollars in sales tax revenue would be diverted to the city's general fund where it could pay for critical infrastructure needs like water treatment capacity in one of the fastest growing cities in the United States.

Leander residents would also lose access to CapMetro's commuter rail, MetroExpress commuter bus into Austin and the local on-demand transit service Pickup. The city would have to pay a penalty to CapMetro currently estimated at about $42 million.

If voters choose to stay in Capital Metro's service area, they'd keep transit access including a rail link into Austin where voters approved a $7.1 billion transit expansion. Project Connect includes two light-rail lines that will connect Leander to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport by rail.

The Leander City Council also on Tuesday night unanimously approved an offer from CapMetro that would net the city $9.3 million this year alone in grants for sidewalks, roads, traffic signals and other infrastructure focused on improving transit.

Staying in Capital Metro would mean Leander could not redirect its 1% transit sales tax to non-transit purposes. The sales tax generated almost $10 million last year, which was up by 30% over the year before.

"I don't think any of us is against public transportation," Leander City Council Member Kathryn Pantalion-Parker said. "I am against the manner in which we pay for the transportation."

Pantalion-Parker pointed to an analysis commissioned by the city that found Leander could run commuter bus and an on-demand transit service for $2.9 million annually.

She and others supporting an election on CapMetro membership have also been critical of ridership levels.

Leander averaged about 635 daily boardings across all three of its CapMetro services in 2019, according to the city-commissioned analysis. In fall 2021, average daily boardings had fallen to around 130 — a decline of 80%.

"It's kind of a joke that the only time we have a traffic problem is when the train is running," Pantalion-Parker said.

Some residents showed up at the meeting in support of membership in Capital Metro and urged council members not to call an election.

"We have all seen the growth here. We know what Leander can become. Be patient," said James Larson, a Leander resident who said he rides the train to work, soccer events at Q2 Stadium and the Domain. "We need the train and we need public transportation to sustain and accommodate the growth here."

Early voting starts Monday, April 25.

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