Pandemic Forces Austin And Capital Metro To Consider A Less Costly Start To Project Connect
The Capital Metro Board and Austin City Council both endorsed the new $10 billion Project Connect long-term transit plan last month. But questions — made more acute by the pandemic-induced recession — remain: how much of the plan to pay for and when to do it? On Wednesday, leaders provided some initial answers.
During a virtual community meeting, the city and Cap Metro unveiled a proposal that would fund $7 billion of the $10 billion plan with a timetable of 10 to 15 years. The rest of the system would be built out over 20 years once funding becomes available.
The plan would still include the proposed Blue and Orange light rail lines and downtown transit tunnel, but the Gold Line would begin as a rapid bus line and be converted to a train line later. Only three new MetroRapid bus lines would be built at first, instead of the seven lines in earlier proposals.
The initial investment plan also changes some of the routes. The Orange Line would run between the North Lamar Transit Center and Stassney Lane. The ends of the line, Tech Ridge to the north and Slaughter to the south, would be served by a reconfigured 801 MetroRapid line, with rail service to come later. The Blue Line would still run from the North Lamar Transit Center to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
A lower initial investment means a lower potential tax increase for voters. The City Council will decide next month whether to place a tax rate election on the November ballot. The $7 billion package would mean a potential tax rate increase of 8.5 cents, or $276 more a year on a property with a value of $325,000. It would mean $425 more a year for a home valued at $500,000.
Moving forward with the $10 billion package would mean a potential tax rate increase of 11 cents, which would cost someone with a $325,000 home $358 more a year and someone with a $500,000 home $550 more a year.
The full $10 billion package is still on the table ahead of upcoming votes on the plan, but those who have been developing both the technical and financial aspects of the package acknowledge the pandemic’s impact.
“We understand the tax impact, but we also know it’s an investment. We know that there’s an economic opportunity that will play itself out in the community,” said Greg Canally, deputy chief financial officer for the City of Austin. “This is taking it to the voters for the voters to decide.”
The new proposal also includes investments aimed at improving equity and reducing displacement once the system is built out. Officials would evaluate displacement risks in neighborhoods and work to ensure there is equal access to the improvements promised by Project Connect.
In addition, a $100 million fund would be established to invest in equitable transit-oriented development along Project Connect routes.
“The goal is to ensure that the people living along those lines can take advantage of transit, that they’re not displaced, [and] that we have opportunities for stabilizing neighborhoods,” said Council Member Ann Kitchen, who is also a Capital Metro board member.
The City Council and Capital Metro Board will meet jointly next week to go over funding proposals. In another joint meeting Aug. 7, the respective bodies will decide whether to form a joint venture, called the Austin Transit Partnership. It would oversee the funding and construction of the transit expansion.
Whether the final plan is worth $7 billion or $10 billion, leaders expect at least 45% of the funding to come from the federal government. Even initially going with the smaller plan would allow Cap Metro to get needed planning and environmental studies out of the way before more funding to complete the lines becomes available in the future.
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