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Austin light-rail gets first approval amid looming Texas legislative threat

 An aerial view down 3rd Street
Nathan Bernier
/
KUT
The recommended light-rail plan approved Wednesday by the Austin Transit Partnership board would travel at ground level down Third Street from Guadalupe Street to Trinity Street.

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Austin's newest light-rail vision — a $5 billion map set to redefine 10 miles of streets — is traveling two parallel tracks this week. On one track, city decision-makers are flashing the go-ahead signal, setting the stage for the Austin Transit Partnership (ATP) to morph blueprints into steel and concrete.

On the parallel track, a bill in the Texas Legislature could obliterate the financial framework of the voter-approved transit expansion known as Project Connect. But only a few days remain for the bill to pass before the legislative session grinds to an end over Memorial Day weekend.

On Wednesday, the ATP board of directors stamped their seal of approval on the light-rail plan — leaving just the Austin City Council and Capital Metro board of directors to give a final green light.

The rail plan, recommended collectively by staff from ATP, Capital Metro and the city, is entirely at street level and travels less than half the 20.2-mile vision approved by voters in 2020.

Despite the truncated route, the plan carries a budget-friendly price tag under $5 billion and extends its reach in three directions from downtown — north, south, and east — laying the foundation for potential expansions.

 An infographic showing the light-rail plan being recommended by ATP. The infographic says the system would have 9.8 miles of train with 15 stations. Estimated travel time from 38th Street to Oltorf would be 23 minutes. Estimated number of average daily riders served would be 28,500.
Austin Transit Partnership
An infographic explaining the recommended light-rail plan: 9.8 miles of line with 15 stations serving an estimated 28,500 riders per day.

"[The light-rail plan] is going to be complex and it's going to come with a lot of challenges, but I do think that it embodies so much of the aspirations of this community," ATP board chair Veronica Castro de Barrera said before the unanimous vote. "It really is a visionary plan."

But ATP lost a passenger along the way. Tony Elkins, a transportation finance expert, resigned from the board in April. Now, he's confounded by ATP's choice to back a map that has 25% lower estimated ridership than a rival path: North Lamar to Pleasant Valley.

"Makes no sense to me," Elkins said. "Project Connect should be about mobility and moving the most amount of people."

 A map showing the North Lamar to Pleasant Valley light-rail map. The route would start at North Lamar Transit Center, travel south to downtown, then cross Lady Bird Lake and continue down Riverside Drive to Pleasant Valley.
Austin Transit Partnership
The North Lamar to Pleasant Valley route would serve an estimated 39,000 riders per day by 2040. The chosen map would have fewer than 30,000 estimated riders daily, but would reach a more diverse ridership and include a section down Congress Avenue.

Elkins — a vice president Meridiam, a Paris-based firm that finances long-term public infrastructure projects — says ATP should explore high-frequency bus service with exclusive, safeguarded lanes. He insists it could cover twice the distance for the same cost while reserving street space for a light-rail system in the future.

"We're talking rubber wheels versus steel wheels," Elkins said. "The beauty of that is for the same amount of money, instead of getting 10 miles of mobility, you could get 20 miles of mobility."

However, those favoring the light-rail system argue that two-and-a-half years after the Project Connect vote, the moment has arrived to make a decision.

"There's a time and place when those of us who believe in this vision, who want to see light-rail become a reality in this community, have to rally together and fight," João Paulo Connolly, a community organizer with the Austin Justice Coalition, told the ATP board. "Today is that day."

 An aerial view of the Austin Transit Partnership headquarters at 203 Colorado Street. The two-story building is surrounded by tall office towers.
Nathan Bernier
/
KUT
The recommended light-rail plan would travel down 3rd Street directly in front of the parking lot at ATP's two-story headquarters on Colorado Street.

That fight is already taking shape under the Texas Capitol dome. A weekend deadline looms to pass House Bill 3899 — legislation conceived by Republican state Rep. Ellen Troxclair, a former Austin City Council member.

The bill initially proposed a requirement that ATP hold elections before borrowing the $1.75 billion in bonds and federal loans required for a public infrastructure project of this magnitude. The voter-approved tax hike, currently generating around $160 million annually, would repay this debt over a 35-year period.

As part of a political strategy, Austin Mayor Kirk Watson — a former Democratic state senator — championed amendments to HB 3899 that he believed would make it possible for ATP to hold a "fair" bond election in November and move forward with building light-rail.

Watson persuaded Democratic lawmakers to back the bill, securing the landslide margins needed for the law to take effect immediately and allow Austin to schedule an election for the fall. Without a two-thirds majority support, HB 3899 wouldn't take effect until September — after the Aug. 21 deadline to call a general election for November.

But now that plan may have inadvertently played into the hands of Republican state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a property tax hawk from Houston.

Pedestrians walk along the new Capitol Mall, a green pedestrian space running down Congress Avenue from the Blanton Museum to the Texas State Capitol Building, on May 3, 2023, in downtown Austin.
Michael Minasi
/
KUT
Monday is the last day of the Texas legislative session. By that point, all bills must have passed. Only corrections can be considered in the House and Senate.

As the bill was on the verge of final Senate approval, Bettencourt on Monday changed HB 3899 to align with his interpretation of a legal opinion from the Texas Attorney General's Office.

Among Bettencourt's revisions was a ban on any local government corporation like ATP issuing bonds that would be repaid with city property taxes raised through an election — exactly the structure created to pay for Project Connect.

In 2020, Austin voters authorized a 20.789% increase in the city's maintenance and operations tax rate so the money could be transferred to ATP for financing and building light-rail.

The modified HB 3899 requires the House's blessing, creating an opening to kill it. Supporters and detractors are now scurrying to lobby the 150 members of the Texas House.

"This bill is much, much bigger than Austin now," Mayor Watson said in a statement. "This fight is far from over."

Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at nbernier@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @KUTnathan.
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