Council to vote on initial route June 26; voters could decide on bond in November election

In November, Austin voters could decide on a multimillion-dollar bond package that would include urban rail in the downtown core and road projects throughout the city.

On May 2, Project Connect planners—comprising city and Capital Metro staff—unveiled a 9.5-mile urban rail route that would cost $1.38 billion and serve East Riverside Drive to Austin Community College's Highland campus as well as the Capitol Complex, The University of Texas and the future Dell Medical School. Daily ridership is expected to be between 16,000–20,000.

Urban rail—a combination of light rail and streetcars that differ from MetroRail—could also be expanded to destinations such as the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, the Mueller development, East Austin and South Congress Avenue.

Despite urban rail's proposed central location, Mayor Lee Leffingwell said the project will be part of the regional mass-transit system laid out in Project Connect, which city and Capital Metro staff created with regional leaders. That plan also includes MoPac express lanes and regional rail from San Antonio to Georgetown.

Regarding the details of the bond package, which has not yet been finalized because City Council has until mid-August to call a bond election for Nov. 4, urban rail is appropriate in some parts of the region while building roads is appropriate in other parts, Leffingwell said. That is why a future bond would include both, he said, as the city is working with transportation agencies such as the Texas Department of Transportation on what projects would be appropriate for the bond.

"We're looking at a transportation crisis. That is a big problem," Leffingwell said. "We're looking for a big solution to it, and that includes every mode of transportation."

The Central Corridor Advisory Group, which is advising Leffingwell on the urban rail project, will vote on the recommendation for the first phase of urban rail June 13. City Council is scheduled to have a specially called meeting on the project with the Capital Metro board of directors June 17. The Capital Metro board will take action June 23, while City Council votes June 26.

Urban rail route

Two key construction components of the $1.38 billion price tag include $100 million to build a bridge over Lady Bird Lake to connect East Riverside and Trinity Street. The bridge could be multimodal and accommodate rail, bicycles and pedestrians.

The other component would be a $220 million tunnel under the MetroRail line near the Hancock Center at 41st Street and I-35.

Project Lead Kyle Keahey said the project team will analyze other options to cross the MetroRail line, including an aerial crossing or an at-grade crossing, although he said the latter would have safety and reliability risks. A below-grade rail station would be built at the Hancock Center. Keahey said Capital Metro could build an adjacent MetroRail station for easier transfers between the two lines.

The Project Connect planning team is recommending 16 stations along the route. Trains would have an average speed of 22 mph, which includes stopping at stations, and an average headway—the distance between trains—of 10 minutes. Keahey said peak demand between any two stations is expected to be 1,100 riders during the rush hour. Keahey said the system could handle up to three-minute headways to accommodate that demand.

The planning team also considered bus-rapid transit, or BRT, similar to Capital Metro's MetroRapid service. But Keahey said BRT would not have the capacity to handle the projected ridership and could not be expanded beyond the initial phase.

"Think of it as a trunk and branches," he said. "The idea is that Lamar, Mueller and Congress could all feed into this trunk and move out to the other branches."

Local options

Keahey said the planning team's recommendation is to move forward with the full project. If the appetite is not there to support the $1.38 billion project, he said CCAG members could decide on two other options.

The first alternative is a 7.3-mile project from Grove Boulevard to the Hancock Center. That option would cost $990 million—closer to Leffingwell's goal of a $1 billion project—and it would serve 13,000–17,000 riders daily. The second alternative would run 5.7 miles from Grove to Dean Keeton Street for a cost of $820 million and serve 10,000–14,000 riders daily.

By reducing the route, Keahey said ridership is not the only loss. The second option would lose economic development potential because there is little opportunity for new development around Dean Keeton, he said.

Implementing the full project could bring in between $6.3 billion–$9.1 billion in new development by 2030, Keahey said. It could also bring between $37.5 million–$55.2 million in new tax revenue by 2030 and draw 14,400–17,700 residents and 14,700–26,800 employees within a half-mile radius of the route.

Keahey said the population and employment increases would result from people moving from throughout the region closer to the route. He said the economic analysis that The University of Texas is creating for the project will be vital to pitching the project to the Federal Transit Administration for federal funding.

"We know FTA is looking really strongly now at economic development," he said.

Local funding

Planners do not expect to fund the entire $1.38 billion project in one phase. Leffingwell said he would like to whittle the cost down to a $1 billion package, of which half could be funded through federal grants and the other half locally by selling bonds.

The city of Austin would act as the owner of the rail project and be responsible for funding the capital costs. Capital Metro would act as the operator and handle financing the operations and maintenance, or O&M, costs of the route.

During an April 29 bond discussion, council members learned the city could increase the debt service tax rate between 1 cent and 6 cents to sell bonds as its local match for federal funding. Generally the FTA requires at least a 50 percent match, Keahey said.

Increasing the tax rate by 3 cents would allow the city to sell $440 million in bonds—almost half of what would be required locally for the mayor's ideal project cost of $1 billion.

At the maximum allowed increase of 6 cents, the city could sell $965 million in bonds. The maximum increase to taxpayers would be an additional $153 per year for a home valued at $200,000, according to city documents.

Capital Metro is analyzing how to cover O&M costs in its budget. By 2022, when the project would begin operation, it would cost $22.1 million annually to operate the rail line. Funding sources for O&M could come from city of Austin parking fees and private funding from advertising or naming rights.

Local feedback

Cid Galindo, president of the Austin chapter of Congress for the New Urbanism, said the group focuses on promoting walkable communities.

"Rail is a critical piece in the puzzle in building compact and connected cities," Galindo said.

He said the city needs to ensure its code will support building dense, mixed-use projects near future rail stops.

"For the rail investment to pay off, we have to change our regulations to allow significant residential density in the immediate area around those stations," Galindo said, adding the city's code rewrite process that is underway would help address that.

Robert Parsons from Austin Gets Around, a group that aims to be the voice for Austin's under-40 population advocating for better transportation options, said the group supports the initial proposed route.

"[It] does a good job of capturing the high concentration of current ridership on Riverside Drive and connecting the big four destinations: the Central Business District, the Capitol Complex, the Medical Innovation District and UT," Parsons said.

Because the project proposes to cross Lady Bird Lake, he said it will open access to areas south of the river and offer more connections for bicyclists and pedestrians.

At least one group opposes Project Connect's recommendation of the Highland-East Riverside route. Scott Morris, treasurer of the newly formed Our Rail PAC which opposes the existing Project Connect rail proposal, said the project would cost too much and serve too few residents.

Morris said the group supports rail but would rather see rail run in the Lamar-Guadalupe corridor because ridership data from the 2000 project study indicates there could be 37,400 daily riders on that route by 2025. Morris said this is more than double the estimated daily weekday ridership of the Highland-East Riverside route.

"We need an expandable backbone as our starter line," Morris said. "The first investment will need to pay for other expansions."