Voters could decide in November how to fund an estimated $2.9B-$7.2B needed to expand transit in Austin area

Options in the Project Connect plan include adding light rail as well as expanding MetroRail, the commuter rail line in the region. (Amy Denney/Community Impact Newspaper)
Options in the Project Connect plan include adding light rail as well as expanding MetroRail, the commuter rail line in the region. (Amy Denney/Community Impact Newspaper)

Options in the Project Connect plan include adding light rail as well as expanding MetroRail, the commuter rail line in the region. (Amy Denney/Community Impact Newspaper)

Capital Metro is completing its analysis to expand public transit in the Austin area and is exploring options with the city on how to pay for local costs that could reach $7.2 billion.

These funding options could include a November referendum that could ask voters to approve a transportation bond by increasing the tax rate or seeking a tax rate election to provide a dedicated funding stream, according to Capital Metro and city officials.

"We have to go big if we're going to actually change [traffic] conditions," Austin Mayor Steve Adler said prior to the Jan. 14 joint City Council meeting with Capital Metro's board of directors.

Project Connect—Capital Metro’s regional transit plan—is proposed to include bus rapid transit similar to MetroRapid but in its own dedicated lane or potentially an elevated light rail with a proposed downtown tunnel connecting two lines.

The agency is also proposing upgrades to the current MetroRail Red Line and expanding the system with the Green Line to Manor, adding more MetroRapid routes and investing in neighborhood circulators such as the Pickup bus service to connect more residents, said Randy Clarke, Capital Metro’s president and CEO.

The goal, he said, of Project Connect is to offer residents more options to get around.

“If we were to build this whole thing out, this would equal 10 lanes of I-35,” he said.

With estimated total costs at full build-out of upward of $12 billion should the region pursue light rail, Capital Metro and the city are partnering to explore funding options. Capital Metro officials are anticipating federal costs would cover about 40%, leaving the region to fund the remaining $7.2 billion on the high end.

Officials said this means taking the options to the voters for a potential November referendum to fund a transportation bond or a tax rate election. The latter option would allow the city to have a dedicated stream of funding by increasing its revenue over the 3.5% year-over-year cap that was enacted in 2019 under Senate Bill 2, said Greg Canally, the city’s deputy chief financial officer.

“The existing funding is really spoken for with our general fund funding our parks and libraries and health and human services and our public safety,” he said. “The ability to fund an initiative like this, any changes to that existing funding would come at a potential disservice to the community investments that we’ve made.”

Canally said it is up to the voters to determine the level of investment the region would put into Project Connect.

“What is important as a community is our ability to access federal transit agency funds, potential 40% match,” he said. “What [the federal government] cares about is not only a dedicated stream for capital funding but also for operating the system and having the system in good repair in the long term.”

Before Capital Metro can seek federal funding for Project Connect, it must have the local dollars lined up, Project Connect Program Manager Dave Couch said.

City and Capital Metro officials will continue their analyses through the spring and bring back a draft recommendation of projects to put to the voters for funding this November. City Council and Capital Metro’s board of directors would then vote on the recommendation in May.

“I feel very confident that this is going to be the year that Austin and the region advances a significant transit program,” Clarke said. “I feel very confident based on my last 18 months of interacting this community. The need is beyond obvious. The community’s ask to do something is clear, and I think we’ve developed a technical package that most people feel is credible and fact-driven and now we’re pretty close to turning this over to the policymakers to say, ‘How would you like to advance this?’”

Breaking down Project Connect

At the core of Project Connect are two proposed high-capacity routes called the Orange and Blue lines. The Orange line would run a similar path as Route 801 between Tech Ridge and Slaughter Lane along North Lamar Boulevard and South Congress Avenue. The Blue Line would run between the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and Austin Community College’s Highland campus by operating along Riverside Drive, Trinity and Red River streets and Airport Boulevard, according to Capital Metro staff.

On those lines, Capital Metro is proposing two mode options. The first is bus rapid transit, similar to MetroRapid, but the buses would operate fully in their own lanes. However, Couch said BRT would max out around 2040 with average weekday ridership projected at 247,000-277,000.

"I'm not sure I want to spend billions for something that will hit capacity so quickly," Adler said.

Capital Metro is also exploring a light rail option, including via an elevated system and a downtown tunnel near Guadalupe, Fourth and Trinity streets to connect the Orange and Blue lines. This could bring average weekday ridership totals to nearly 300,000. Current weekday ridership is around 110,000, according to Capital Metro.

“When you’re going to make the kind of investment that is there you’re looking for something that is for the very long term,” Couch said.

The costs for other components in Project Connect, including MetroRail Red Line upgrades and adding the Green Line, would cost a total of $1.5 billion to $1.7 billion. After federal funding covers 40% of the costs, the local costs to the region would be $900 million to $1.02 billion, according to documents.

High-capacity transit on the low end with BRT would cost about $3.2 billion, but investing in light rail would bring the costs up to $10.3 billion for an elevated system and the downtown tunnel. Assuming federal funds cover 40% of the total system costs of $4.9 billion to $12 billion, that would bring the region’s responsibility to $2.9 billion to $7.2 billion, according to documents.

For people who never plan to ride transit, Clarke said adding more transit options will help them too with their commutes and businesses that rely on making deliveries on time.

“We want those people [who could take transit] not to be queued up at a red light in front of you,” Clarke said. “One rapid bus can hold 100 people. That’s a lot of single-occupancy cars. That’s 10th Street all the way to Cesar Chavez [Street] of single-occupancy cars. Think of what a light rail train would move at peak rush hour.”

Amy Denney


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