A billion-dollar decision: Austin urban rail Q&A


Austin light rail, kicked around since the 1970s, rejected in 2000 and in active planning for the past seven years, is now a $600 million ballot reality, with $400 million of road spending riding shotgun.

Early voters now, and Election Day traditionalists on Nov. 4, will decide if it becomes an on-the-ground reality as well. What do voters need to know to make this difficult, generational choice on what has become the area’s most pressing issue? What follows, after years of covering this issue, are the Statesman’s answers to that question.

What is it that Capital Metro wants to build?

First of all, this isn’t a Capital Metro election, although the transit agency is involved. The energy behind the proposal, and the local money to fund its construction, comes from Austin’s city government.

The plan calls for a 9.5-mile-long, electric-powered rail line with two sets of tracks, running from the Austin Community College Highland Campus (at the old Highland Mall near U.S. 290 and Interstate 35), down Airport Boulevard and Red River Street, through the University of Texas on San Jacinto Boulevard, on Trinity Street through downtown, across a new bridge over the river at the foot of Trinity, and then on East Riverside Drive to a point about 2 miles east of I-35 at Grove Boulevard.

The line would have 16 stations — one about every two-thirds of a mile — and park-and-ride lots at or near Highland Mall, Hancock Center, South Pleasant Valley Road and Grove.

Why that route? I heard that some rail advocates oppose it and, therefore, the ballot proposition.

Yes, some do. They argue that light rail should go from downtown to west of the university on Guadalupe Street and then, farther north, merge onto North Lamar Boulevard. Advocates for that alternative route say it would have better ridership because it would be closer to West Campus and other heavily populated areas.

But rail planners recommended the route east of there, and it is listed with some specificity on the ballot. Those planners said this route has greater potential for growth nearby in terms of population and employment. Beyond that, they point to a $38 million federal grant that Capital Metro received to install rapid bus service on Guadalupe and North Lamar (as well as on Burnet Road and two South Austin corridors). That service opened early this year, and they say federal regulators would be unlikely anytime soon to give Austin a much larger sum to replace the new bus service.

And they maintain that while North Lamar might eventually have rail service, putting it there likely would require removing two of the busy road’s five lanes. Motorists, they say, would rebel at such a decision.

Would the tracks be underground or elevated? Surely we can’t have a dangerous “third rail” in the middle of streets?

No subway-like, electrified third rail here. Light rail motors typically get their juice from lines strung above the tracks, with a device called a catenary running from the vehicle roof to the wire. So the tracks would be embedded in the street (with some exceptions) and the trains would run alongside cars.

Would we have to give up car lanes for this? Or would cars and trains use the same lanes?

Rail planners have said the trains would have their own lanes, with a possible exception along Red River between the university and East 41st Street at Hancock Shopping Center. And there are a few places where the rail wouldn’t be in the street, including the new bridge over Lady Bird Lake and the stretch along Airport Boulevard, where the tracks might sit in right of way along the street’s west side.

Would the trains have to wait at traffic lights?

Probably not. They likely would be equipped with technology to change red lights to green before the train arrives at the intersection.

How much would the rail project cost?

$1.38 billion, in 2020 dollars, to build it and buy the light rail cars. The initial operating costs — the line is projected to open in 2022 — would be $22 million a year.

Where would that money come from?

That’s what the election is about, other than the annual operating costs. Capital Metro would pay the bulk of that $22 million (and whatever it becomes over time) out of its existing sales tax and other revenue, including fares and federal transit grants.

As for the original capital costs, it’s complicated. The city’s overall idea is that the cost would be split half and half between local funds and what are called New Starts grants from the Federal Transit Administration. That would imply roughly $700 million from the city and $700 million from the feds.

But the city, in the election, is asking voters to authorize only $600 million in bonds for rail. What’s up with that?

City officials negotiated with the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and the Real Estate Council of Austin to get their support. But in return, those organizations wanted significant road spending to be on the ballot as well, and they basically demanded a 60/40 split. Given the desire by some of those same city officials to keep the total amount on the ballot no higher than $1 billion, that translated to $600 million for rail and $400 million for roads.

So if Austin throws in $600 million and the federal agency matches that, won’t the project fall a couple of hundred million dollars short?

Perhaps. But the city hopes to use other, much smaller local sources of funds as part of that match, including the value of city and university street acreage given over to rail usage. And the current rail estimate includes $330 million for unanticipated costs, or contingency spending. So, in theory, the total cost of the project as currently envisioned might come in below $1.38 billion. Or rail planners could make certain trims and changes in the current plan to lower the cost.

Are the federal matching funds a sure thing?

No. Austin likely would make it through the federal New Starts grant process over the next few years and get substantial money, absent sharp cuts in federal transit spending. But New Starts’ funding history shows that those grants have fallen below 50 percent in many cases.

So, if Austinites vote yes, and the federal funding comes through, and this line gets built, what is the expected ridership?

18,000 boardings a day by 2030, the eighth year of operation. Rail planners haven’t released estimates for the first year or for years two through seven. Two caveats: Boardings aren’t people. A single person could ride the line twice in a day and be counted as two boardings. And officials have said 11,500 of those 18,000 boardings likely would be by people currently using buses to make comparable trips. So the gained ridership for transit in Austin would be 6,500 boardings in 2030, plus an additional 3,500 bus boardings that officials estimate having the train would generate.

Would that make any difference during rush hour on congested highways like I-35, U.S. 183 and MoPac Boulevard?

Very little. But supporters of the city bond proposal emphasize that this line would be only the first phase of building rail transit in Central Texas. An entity called Project Connect, created by Austin and Capital Metro to plan rail, in 2012 produced a “high-capacity transit vision” for the area with various other regional, commuter and light rail lines that would be built over the next 20 to 30 years. If that actually occurs, rail ridership eventually could be several times larger than this initial estimate.

At great cost, though, right?

Yes, but how much and how soon is not known. It is safe to say that building an entire system would cost several times this initial line’s price tag, and would also carry the high likelihood of further tax increases.

“Further” tax increases?

Yes. If voters approve this proposition and two other conditions are met (more on that in a second), then city of Austin property taxes by 2020 would go up an estimated 6.25 cents per $100 of assessed value to provide revenue for debt payments. For a $200,000 home, roughly the median value in Austin now, taxes by 2020 would go up $217, the city estimates, and those payments would last at least 20 years.

But there are two key caveats laid out in the ballot language. First, the new Austin City Council, before it could issue bonds for rail, would have to “provide funds” for that $400 million in road spending. That money would also have to be borrowed, and the debt payments on that are part of that 6.25 cents per $100 tax increase.

Second, the city wouldn’t be able to issue the bulk of that $600 million in rail debt, the part for construction, unless it lands “matching” federal or state grants for the project. Given the federal funding history, and the Texas Department of Transportation’s focus on road spending, that might fall short.

The ballot language would allow the city to issue some of those bonds to pay for planning, environmental and engineering costs necessary to get the project through the New Starts application process and see what the federal funding decision is. That amount, rail officials say, would be $50 million to $70 million.

Tell me more about this $400 million in road spending.

The money would pay for upgrades to I-35 from the river to south of William Cannon Drive, including new, wider overpasses, additional frontage and auxiliary lanes, and other changes designed to ease congestion. There would also be two projects near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and one on FM 1826 in Southwest Austin, along with several studies and funds for a new traffic management center. For further details on these projects, see the road map with this article.

What if I want to vote for the rail but against the roads, or vice versa?

You can’t. The two are packaged together in one up or down vote.



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