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How much should it cost to ride Austin's light rail?

An illustration showing an imagined light-rail system on a non-descript Austin street. The tracks are in the middle of the street with a blue rail vehicle facing toward us, stopped at a light-rail station. On either side of the tracks are busy two-lane streets.
Austin Transit Partnership
An illustration gives an idea of what Austin's light-rail system could look like.

Austin's light-rail system is still years away from becoming a reality. The first trains won't start running until 2029 at the earliest.

But already some people are worried about how much it could cost to ride light rail. They don't want Capital Metro to up-charge customers like the agency does for those who ride the MetroRail commuter train.

A fare payment system on a Capital Metro bus as viewed through the window from outside
Pavel Mezihorak
A one-day local bus pass is $2.50. A one-day pass to ride MetroRail and the bus is $7.

"I believe it will also get more commuters to use the rail system," said Katherine Kay, a frequent bus rider who often buys a 24-hour bus pass for $2.50. "Keep the rail system, the new one, current with the prices of the bus."

The environmental justice group PODER has been arguing light-rail fares should be the same as the bus not only to keep up ridership, but also to ensure those who rely on transit the most can still afford it.

"We're very concerned because this would be the first time the rail system will be serving the Eastern Crescent, which is mostly low-income and people of color," said PODER Director Susana Almanza.

She was referring specifically to the Blue Line, which will travel from the airport through Southeast Austin, along Riverside Drive and into downtown.

An illustrated cross-section of a subway tunnel showing a CapMetro light-rail vehicle cruising underground.
Austin Transit Partnership
Austin's light-rail plans include more than four miles of subway tunnel through downtown and South Austin.

The other route, the Orange Line, will run initially from Stassney Lane to the North Lamar Transit Center.

"When that rail comes in, we want to make sure everybody benefits," Almanza said. "If it's $2.50 for the bus, it should be $2.50 for the rail. That's equity."

Right now, CapMetro doesn't do that. A one-day pass that includes bus, commuter bus and MetroRail costs $7. A single ride on the train is $3.50. For local bus service, a day pass is $2.50 and a single ride costs $1.25.

A blue and red MetroRail train on the tracks near the Leander station.
Gabriel C. Pérez
MetroRail costs much more to operate than any other CapMetro service, but it's also subsidized far more heavily than the bus.

Users of the services differ in income and demographics, according to CapMetro ridership surveys. Among all CapMetro riders, only 25% said they earn more than $30,000 a year. Almost half of MetroRail users earn more than $60,000.

When it comes to race and ethnicity, 70% of MetroRail users are white. But white people make up about a third of MetroBus riders.

"Do we want to be an exclusive service only for high-income and majority white? That's who rides the rail now," Almanza said. "Or do we want to serve all of Austin and make sure that we include low-income and people of color."

Many American transit agencies with light-rail service charge the same to ride the bus. But some still have higher fares for local rail service.

Philadelphia's transit system charges $2.50 to ride the bus or trolley. In Portland, a $2.50 fare will get you on a bus, light rail or even commuter rail, which tends to be higher priced in most transit systems, including Austin's. New York City charges $2.75 to ride subways and the bus.

Boston, on the other hand, charges $1.70 to ride a local bus and $2.40 to take the subway. But single day, weekly and monthly passes include both the subway and the bus for one price.

A subway on the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority's Red Line stopped at Charles/MGH Station.
Eric James
Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority charges more to ride the subway than the bus.

"If [CapMetro officials] find the operating costs on light rail are higher, they might feel like they have to increase fares on those modes," said UT Austin Associate Professor Alex Karner, who studies public transportation systems. "I think that would be ill-advised."

A top Capital Metro official disclosed in a memo to the transit agency's board of directors that planners are assuming Austin's light-rail fares will cost the same as local bus service. But any decision would be made by the board.

"We see this as an equity approach and a similar strategy that peer transit systems are moving towards because of the similarities in the services provided," CapMetro Executive Vice President of Finance Catherine Walker wrote in the memo. "However, fare pricing and structure are policy decisions for the CapMetro board to make."

The agency has moved toward reducing fares for those who would struggle most to afford them.

In two weeks, the CapMetro board will vote on creating a new reduced fare tier. Equifare, as it's called, would be for those earning less than 200% of the federal poverty level, which amounts to $53,000 for a family of four. An Equifare day pass on the bus, for example, would cost $2 instead of $2.50.

CapMetro's board will also vote July 25 on whether to cap how much people pay to ride the bus or train. Under the fare-capping proposal, someone could board the bus for free after paying the equivalent of a day pass in a single day or a month pass in a single month. But riders could only take advantage of fare-capping by using a new payment card called Amp.

An illustration of CapMetro's proposed Amp card
Capital Metro
Amp cards could be loaded with a credit card or by paying cash at 7/11, CVS, Walgreens, Family Dollar or Dollar General.

Equifare and fare-capping come with costs, but they're not astronomical. Capital Metro fares make up less than 3% of the agency's revenue. Almost half of CapMetro's money comes from a local 1% sales tax.

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Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. He covers the big projects that are reshaping how we get around Austin, like the I-35 overhaul, the airport's rapid growth and the multibillion-dollar transit expansion Project Connect. He also focuses on the daily changes that affect how we walk, bike and drive around the city. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on X @KUTnathan.
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