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Transportation

Leander City Council delays vote on Capital Metro election

Passengers wearing protective face masks disembark from a train at Leander's MetroRail station on January 20, 2021.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
Leander is the final stop on the MetroRail line. The Leander City Council has delayed a decision on whether to hold an election on CapMetro membership until after the transit agency's board meets on Monday, possibly to consider a deal that would keep Leander in the regional transit system.

The Leander City Council has pushed back a decision on whether to give voters the option to cut ties with Capital Metro. The council is waiting until after CapMetro's board of directors meets to consider its future with the city.

CapMetro's board has directed the transit agency's CEO Randy Clarke to present on Monday some initial options for a new agreement with Leander. The board wants to convince the city to remain a part of the regional transit system as it has since 1986.

Even though the Leander City Council didn't call an election, it did move forward with a decision on how to craft the ballot for a potential election to sever ties with CapMetro.

Council members agreed 6-1 that the ballot should indicate a 1% sales tax currently paying for CapMetro membership would be redirected to the city's general fund instead of an economic development corporation whose goal would be attracting more business.

Council members supporting the move believed such language would be easier for voters to support and give the city more flexibility in how to spend the almost $10 million in annual revenue — a pool of money that keeps increasing in one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States.

"I think [voters] look at it as it's CapMetro or more money to the city, which, 'I know my city needs money because I see all these needs,'" Leander Mayor Christine DeLisle said from the council dais Thursday night.

"There are some people that bristle whenever you bring up [an economic development] corporation, because they see it as corporate welfare," she said. "I think that hurts us."

Capital Metro provides Leander with a MetroRail station, a MetroExpress commuter bus route into downtown Austin and Pickup, an on-demand transit service operating within Leander that tries to show up within 15 minutes of someone requesting a ride.

A Pickup bus
Samuel King
/
KUT
Pickup lets people request a ride with their phone. CapMetro's goal is for one of these buses to show up in 15 minutes or less.

Leander transit ridership plunged at the start of the pandemic, as it did throughout Central Texas and across the country. While ridership has recovered, it still remains down compared to 2019.

With Leander's continual increase in sales tax revenue, council members see a growing pot of money paying for a shrinking volume of rides.

Leander's MetroRail station averaged about 265 daily boardings in 2019, according to a city-commissioned report by the Goodman Corporation, a planning and engineering firm. In fall 2021, average daily boardings had fallen to around 80 — a decline of 70%.

An aerial view of the park and ride at Leander's MetroRail station
Nathan Bernier
/
KUT
Leander MetroRail ridership has been down since the pandemic as indicated on a Tuesday afternoon by the number of vehicles at the commuter rail Park and Ride.

Similarly, average daily boardings for MetroExpress fell from close to 300 before the pandemic to 80 last fall, the Goodman Corporation told Leander City Council members.

But Capital Metro expects ridership to increase in the years ahead, particularly with MetroRail improvements and planned construction of light-rail lines that will make it possible to ride the train from Leander to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

The projects are part of a $7 billion transit expansion Austin voters approved in 2020 in exchange for a city tax rate increase of 8.75 cents per $100 of property value.

"Traveling to Leander, two of the greatest things I've been hearing is, 'Man, I'd love it if CapMetro could get me from Leander more efficiently down to the airport and also to the Domain-area," CapMetro board member Eric Stratton said Tuesday at a ceremonial groundbreaking for a new MetroRail station.

Broadmoor Station, part of the Project Connect transit improvements, will be within walking distance of the Domain at a 66-acre mixed-use development under construction called Uptown ATX.

 An illustration of Broadmoor Station after it's completed
Capital Metro
/
Brandywine Realty Trust
An illustration of Broadmoor Station after it's completed. CapMetro held a groundbreaking ceremony this week.

Capital Metro announced in October it will be installing more train tracks between Leander and Lakeline, the next stop on the MetroRail line. The new tracks are intended to help provide more frequent and reliable service.

If Capital Metro's overtures don't convince Leander to stay in the transit system, service would stop within 24 hours after an election to leave CapMetro is certified, but the city might not get to keep the additional tax revenue for years.

Money from the 1% transit sales tax would keep flowing to CapMetro until Leander pays off a financial penalty of more than $33 million for leaving the transit system.

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