After slamming the brakes last year on planning for the long-envisioned urban rail system in Austin, city leaders in recent months have rejuvenated efforts to bring a plan to voters by next year.
That urgency, Austin City Council members say, is tied at least in part to what is likely to be unprecedented turnover of the council as it goes from seven at-large members now to 11 district-based members in January 2015. Most or even all of that expanded council will be new to the intricacies of running Austin, and the learning curve could force urban rail onto the slow track yet again if voters haven’t yet approved a first segment costing a half billion dollars or more.
“It’s going to be difficult for the new council to focus on much else other than getting organized and getting that new system going,” said Mayor Lee Leffingwell, recalling how the rail effort essentially had to start over when he took over from former Mayor Will Wynn in 2009. That new council will not include Leffingwell, prohibited by term limits from running again. If a rail election didn’t happen by 2014, Leffingwell said, “that would be a big setback.”
Planning for a system of electric-powered cars — which would connect with Capital Metro’s 32-mile commuter line from Leander to downtown Austin — slowed for several months after city leaders last spring backed away from calling a November 2012 rail election. But the council in December approved an additional $232,000 for what had been a dormant environmental impact study on a first segment of urban rail, work that began in 2011 and has total authorized funding of $700,000. And the city and Capital Metro recently decided to jointly hire an urban rail program director for as much as $175,000 a year.
Overall, the city has set aside $10.1 million for rail planning and has spent about a third of that.
But despite those stirrings and official enthusiasm, fundamental questions about urban rail remain unresolved: What precisely will the first segment be, how much will it cost and will the federal government, as supporters presume, shoulder half the cost? Who will operate the system, and where will that entity find the money to pay operating costs? And those costs are also an unknown, but likely to be well above $10 million annually even for a relatively short starter system.
“I don’t know if it would have been possible to go ahead and have the (rail) election in 2012,” said Leffingwell, who has been pushing for action on rail since before being elected mayor in 2009. “We needed to pull back and kind of reassess what our options were, getting a little more data. But we’re fully ramped up again.”
Leffingwell and others said that ramping-up should lead to answers early enough for a 2014 election, probably in November. Voters likely would be asked to OK selling $275 million or more in bonds. That money, which would be paid back by property taxes, would cover half of the design and construction cost of the first several miles of urban rail.
Fits and non-starts
The current scenario — government staff and consultants working on an electric rail plan, talk of an upcoming election, and critical, unanswered questions — has become a familiar one.
Capital Metro in April 2006, even as it was working on design and construction of MetroRail, first unveiled what was to be agency’s next phase of rail: a streetcar plan, with a route between downtown and the Mueller area substantially similar to the city’s May 2012 map. Capital Metro officials promised a final recommended route, costs and ridership estimates in June of that year, and board members at the time wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a November 2006 election.
The plan languished, however, and there was no rail election.
In 2007, with Capital Metro’s reputation and finances at a low ebb, Wynn and the council essentially took over the rail effort. Wynn formed a citizen panel dubbed the Transit Working Group and pushed (unsuccessfully, in the end) for a November 2008 election. Leffingwell ran for mayor talking about a 2010 rail vote, briefly slid that to 2011, then to 2012.
City staff last May released what at the time was supposed to be the final take on that first segment, 5.5 miles at a cost of $550 million running from Fourth Street downtown to Mueller, passing through the Capitol complex and the University of Texas along the way.
While finding the money to build urban rail is a challenge — the complete system would be several times longer than what the officials have proposed for this first election — the city at least has the flexibility to ask voters to devote a portion of property taxes to pay off bonds. And the Federal Transit Administration does have some money to help cities build rail systems, although the competition is fierce and 39 cities are ahead of Austin in line asking for that money.
The perhaps more vexing problem is what comes after the ribbon-cutting: an open-ended, multimillion-dollar annual commitment locally to cover operations and maintenance costs. Transit fares typically cover only 5 to 20 percent of the cost, leaving the rest to come from taxes or other sources.
Capital Metro officials, looking at the next several years, have said paying for its current bus and MetroRail operations will require all of what it takes in from the agency’s 1 percent sales tax. That levy is as high as state law allows.
Even so, Leffingwell said last week that Capital Metro’s sales tax might be a source of operating money. He also cited toll revenue from the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, although that agency has so far shown no inclination to divert its still modest toll surpluses to transit.
Or the city could create so-called tax-increment financing districts associated with rail, he said, dedicating property tax revenue to its operations, or a “public improvement district” as exists downtown now. That district levies a property tax on downtown property owners. Others have said that the private sector could somehow help. None of this has evolved into a specific plan.
Despite all the delays, City Council Member Bill Spelman said the answers are findable.
“My guess is that our funding difficulties are greater here than in other places” that have electric-rail systems like Dallas, Denver and Salt Lake City, Spelman said, because of state limits on both Capital Metro and city sales taxes. “But we can figure it out, and I think we are closer to figuring it out than we were.”
A 2014 election is more likely than the track record would suggest, Spelman said.
“In the absence of the promise by the mayor, I’d say maybe, maybe not,” he said. “But the mayor is very careful about his promises.”
A bigger picture
Leffingwell in fall 2011 reconvened Wynn’s transit working group, this time with the broader mission of crafting an overall transit plan for Central Texas in conjunction with a joint city and Capital Metro effort called Project Connect. The group of about 20, chaired by Leffingwell, met more or less weekly until June last year. The fruit of this $760,000 process (the city covered $660,000 of that) was a “vision” map showing a network of urban rail, commuter rail (linking Austin to San Antonio, Georgetown, Taylor and Elgin), “rapid” bus routes and express toll lanes on major highways where buses theoretically could move faster and more dependably than they do now.
Building all of it would take decades and, while no official estimate exists, several billion dollars.
The point was to put urban rail in a larger and more favorable context. Political and business support for the plan had been weak, officials say, because the proposed system was focused on the city’s core and thus unlikely to meaningfully affect freeway congestion.
“Without some context, urban rail doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” Spelman said. “But the value in the short-range connection is it makes the long-range connections from commuter rail and bus rapid transit work. We needed to bring into the foreground that this is about a whole system, not about connecting Mueller to downtown.”
The city Transportation Department and its consultants, meanwhile, are busy again looking for those elusive answers. Karla Villalon, a spokeswoman for the department, said a detailed ridership estimate should be complete by spring, along with more detailed estimates for capital and operating costs.
A recommended source, or sources, for operating costs should be included in a series of recommendations to the City Council later in the year, Villalon said. The draft environmental impact statement, a requirement for landing federal transit grants, should be complete in 2014, she said.
Martha Smiley, a businesswoman and lawyer who served on the UT Board of Regents in the 1990s, has been on Leffingwell’s Transit Working Group since 2011. Smiley also is the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce’s vice chairwoman of mobility and infrastructure and thus part of an important audience Leffingwell has been trying to swing to supporting rail.
Smiley said that the area needs transportation solutions of all kinds, including rail, but she’s not fully on board with the city plan yet. She needs key answers first, and she said finding them is more important than meeting some arbitrary political deadline.
“Until we go through the process, I can’t champion something that I don’t know passes muster,” Smiley said. “We could spend a whole lot of money doing it wrong. Or we can spend a whole lot of money doing it right.”
Ben Wear has covered Austin-area transportation since 2003. In 2007, his reporting disproved claims that Capital Metro’s new commuter rail line would meet its $90 million budget and 2008 start-up date. He has written more than two dozen stories over the past several years on the city of Austin’s planning for urban rail.
CORRECTION: A map accompanying this story has been updated to say that the cost for the first phase of the rail line is estimated at $550 million in 2017-2021, the projected years of construction.