Realizing Capital Metro’s dream of a network of “high-capacity” rail or bus routes throughout Austin could cost at least $10.5 billion to build, according to detailed estimates from a long-term plan released last week.
Beyond that, operating just nine of the 11 major transit corridors envisioned in the Project Connect plan — the agency did not release estimates for two of them — would cost $75 million to $177 million a year. By comparison, Capital Metro’s overall operating budget this fiscal year, which includes about 80 bus routes, a rail line and door-to-door services for people with certain disabilities, is $262.4 million.
The construction cost estimate in the draft plan of $10.5 billion, which reflects nine of the 11 corridors, differs sharply from an overall estimate of $6 billion to $8 billion listed in a Monday presentation to the agency’s board. Capital Metro spokesman Peter Partheymuller said the lower range is agency officials’ best take on where costs would settle.
The higher figure assumes that light rail would be built on all the corridors in the plan, and that almost surely will not happen, he said.
“It’s more likely to be in that $6 billion to $8 billion range,” Partheymuller said. “It’s extremely early in the process, so these numbers are very preliminary.”
The agency remains coy about its preference for which mode of transit — light rail, “rapid” bus or something else entirely — to run in each of those corridors. But Capital Metro President and CEO Randy Clarke said this week it is essential that these priority corridors have a portion of the street right of way dedicated exclusively to transit, no matter the mode.
“Over the next couple of months, we’ll narrow it down to a recommended mode,” Todd Hemingson, the agency’s vice president of strategic planning and development, said Wednesday at a “Traffic Jam” open house held at Austin’s new Central Library. The Capital Metro board in June will vote on a final version of the plan, officials said. Then, probably in December, the agency staff will ask the board to vote again on a specific first phase of one or more corridor projects.
That in turn could lead to some sort of 2020 rail election, officials said, because state law requires Capital Metro to pass a referendum to expand its current one-line rail system. Or perhaps the city of Austin, as it did unsuccessfully in 2014, could ask voters for authority to sell bonds to raise money for building rail or exclusive lanes for bus service.
Fifty-seven percent of voters said no to a rail plan and $600 million in bonded debt in the 2014 election. A Capital Metro referendum in 2000 to authorize light rail construction failed by less than 2,000 votes. With 62 percent approving, voters in 2004 gave Capital Metro permission to build the 32-mile MetroRail line from downtown Austin to Leander.
The plan and upcoming Capital Metro board votes are the initial steps in what would be a lengthy and labyrinthine process of environmental studies, pursuit of federal grants and local efforts to raise huge sums that likely would include bond elections. Building out the plan could take 25 to 30 years, Capital Metro officials said.
Taken together, the nine corridors — Capital Metro and its consultants have not released figures on the proposed South Pleasant Valley Road or Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard corridors — would have 61,000 to 122,000 boardings a day. However, all of the corridors have current bus routes or existing rail service, and it was not clear if the figures listed would be in addition to current ridership.
The agency’s estimates for the nine corridors are:
• North Lamar/Guadalupe, what the agency is calling the orange line: $700 million to $2.4 billion capital cost, with boardings up to 30,000 a day.
• South Congress, the brown line: $359 million to $1 billion cost, with up to 18,000 boardings a day.
• East Riverside, the blue line: $404 million to $1.5 billion cost, with up to 18,000 boardings a day.
• MetroRail, the red line: $55 million to $206 million in additional cost to the existing line, with up to 10,000 boardings a day.
• Manor Road, the purple line: $520 million to $1.6 billion cost, with up to 15,000 boardings a day.
• South Lamar, the yellow line: $555 million to $1.6 billion cost, with up to 14,000 boardings a day.
• ACC Highland, the gold line: $340 million to $876 million cost, with up to 7,500 boardings a day.
• MetroRail to Manor and Elgin, the green line: $264 million to $362 million cost, with up to 1,900 boardings a day.
• Seventh/Lake Austin, the pink line: $143 million to $898 million cost, with up to 7,500 boardings a day.