The New Project Connect Plan Is Big. So Is The Price Tag.

Mar 9, 2020

Now that Capital Metro has revealed its preferred plan to expand transit in Austin, the question becomes how to pay for it. The Capital Metro board and Austin City Council tackled that question Monday during a joint work session.

The plan, released Friday, includes:

  • Two new light rail lines: the Orange Line and the Blue Line. Both would run in dedicated lanes or transitways. At first, the Orange Line would run from the North Lamar Transit Center through the UT campus corridor and downtown, ending at Stassney Lane. Eventually, the line would extend to Tech Ridge in the north and Slaughter Lane in the south. The Blue Line would run out to the airport, sharing the Orange Line tracks between the North Lamar Transit Center and downtown.
     
  • A new Gold Line would run between ACC Highland to Republic Square. This would use buses at first, again on dedicated transitways, but could be converted to trains in the future.
     
  • A new 1.6 mile downtown tunnel with underground stations.
     
  • Expanded commuter rail (larger trains) service: More stations and faster service would come to the Red Line. The plans also call for the construction of a new Green Line, which would run from Downtown to Colony Park with planned extensions to Manor and Elgin.
     
  • New MetroRapid and MetroExpress service

Under the latest estimates unveiled Monday, all that would cost $9.6 billion over the next 30 years. Federal grants could account for 40% of the funding, or around $4 billion. That leaves another $5.6 billion that would have to be funded locally.

“We’ve deferred taking this action for 20-something years.” said Wade Cooper, Cap Metro board chair. “We should have done it long ago, but that time period has given us an opportunity to learn from other people’s mistakes. So it’s not cheap, but it’s the right thing to do, I’m convinced.”

Officials seem to be leaning toward asking voters for a tax increase, rather than borrowing money to build out the lines. The tax revenue would provide a source of revenue to keep the lines running after they’re built, something borrowing alone can’t do.

“What we really need this time around is not only the ability to fund the large capital needs that were talked about here, perhaps around $10 billion, but also” operations and maintenance, said Greg Canally, deputy chief financial officer for the City of Austin. “Looking back over the last time we’ve done this, that’s something we failed to do. This time we focus on the ability to make sure we have an ongoing revenue source that can fund the operations.”

Canally laid out a series of potential scenarios for a potential tax rate increase: 

  • If everything is built out in 15 years, owners of a median-valued home would pay about $34 to $37 more a month. In fiscal year 2021, that value is projected to be $325,000.
     
  • If everything is built out in 30 years, owners of a median-valued home would pay $24 to $27 more a month.
     
  • If everything is built in 30 years without a downtown tunnel, owners of a median-valued home would pay $18 to $20 more a month.

Cap Metro would also kick in millions of funding of its own. A new local government corporation, similar to Central Health, could also be formed between the authority and the City of Austin. Canally and other officials said it could help the region leverage federal funding and provide more transparency. A consultant is studying the issue and plans to offer ideas for a framework in May.

The community will get to weigh in on both the transit plans and funding ideas during a series of public meetings in each City Council district and at a virtual town hall next month. There will also be a joint public hearing with the Cap Metro board and Austin City Council in May, ahead of a planned vote near the end of the month.

The plan would then head to voters in November. If plans stay on schedule, the new light rail lines could be running in 2028 or 2029, but expanded bus and MetroRail Red Line services would start sooner than that.

Got a tip? Email Samuel King at samuel@kut.org. Follow him @SamuelKingNews.

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