Capital Metro and city of Austin officials know that if the area is ever going to get high-dollar, big-impact transit, the leaders of those two governments — and perhaps a few others — will have to be singing from the same hymnal.
The cost is simply too huge and the logistics too complex for Capital Metro to go it alone. And federal transit officials, whose grants could cover up to half the cost of light rail or high-capacity bus lines, demand that communities be solidly behind projects that get in line for funding.
With that in mind, Capital Metro officials gathered with their potential Austin City Council partners for what they hope will be the start of a beautiful (and lucrative) friendship.
“We know we don’t have all the resources. We don’t have all the tools,” said Wade Cooper, chairman of the Capital Metro board.
Capital Metro, in fact, is in the middle of spending more than $50 million on federally mandated upgrades to its MetroRail train control system and sees little headroom in its budget for the foreseeable future.
“But our job is to throw the conversation out into the community,” Cooper added. “We understand that if we don’t have the final vote, we don’t have the final say.”
After light rail was solidly rejected by Austin voters in 2014 — and Capital Metro officials took time to reflect on the defeat — agency officials revived the Project Connect planning process for rail or, alternatively, what the industry calls bus rapid transit. Those are local bus routes that, in general, run on dedicated rights of way separated from regular vehicle lanes, allowing them to outrace regular rush-hour traffic.
That process has produced a draft map of 11 major corridors that, at a cost of $6 billion to $8 billion, might take Capital Metro and its offerings from an inferior alternative to a prime mover in Central Texas. But getting from a map to on-the-ground rail, stations or rapid buses are a megaproject that has proved difficult throughout Capital Metro’s 33 years of existence. The agency, paired with the city, has lost two rail elections and has thus far managed to put in place only the low-ridership MetroRail commuter line and two not-so-rapid bus routes that run mostly in shared traffic.
Capital Metro CEO Randy Clarke, on the job for just five months, is trying to change that. The joint session Monday with the city and a second one scheduled for September are part of an attempt to reverse that history.
Monday’s session was essentially a seminar on the complex federal funding process, include a sobering look at the obstacles to getting help from Uncle Sam. Congress this year allotted $2.6 billion for such transit grants — ignoring a Trump administration proposal to zero those out — but there are more than $42 billion worth of projects already waiting in the federal pipeline.
And that group does not include Capital Metro at this point.
The September meeting will be a discussion of possible modes on those 11 high-capacity corridors, whether they be rail or buses. Capital Metro’s board hopes to make that decision by the end of the year, Clarke said, but then will come the real work of refining the plan, setting priorities and chasing the big bucks.
“This is a multigenerational project,” Cooper said. “It’s incumbent on us to have a big tent financially.”
Some City Council members emphasized that the tent must have more than merely Capital Metro and the city in it — that other local governments and perhaps the state should chip in. Council Member Leslie Pool pointed out that the Legislature has been talking about further limiting how much city governments can raise property taxes without a public vote.
However, most city help with transit is likely to come in the form of bonds, which generally require an election.
“We’re very much about trying to assemble a basket of resources,” Cooper said, “rather than depending almost exclusively on the city of Austin’s pocketbook.”