AUSTIN (KXAN) — Nearly two-and-a-half years after they approved a massive transportation plan called Project Connect, Austin voters got their first look at five design options for the city’s future light rail system. Before these new designs were unveiled, however, millions of taxpayer dollars had been funneled to the project.

In 2020, voters opted to increase the city’s property tax rate, dedicating 8.75 cents per $100 of property valuation to Project Connect. The vote also created Austin Transit Partnership, or ATP — — the entity created to oversee the project — which began operating jointly with CapMetro and the City of Austin before passing its first, independent budget in September.

According to ATP’s Fiscal Year 2022-23 budget, these property tax funds will provide $159 million in revenue for its group this year, in addition to other revenue streams such as contributions from CapMetro’s budget. That marked an increase from the prior fiscal year, where revenue from the tax was estimated at $157.3 million.

  • Explore the budget here

Executive Director Greg Canally said ATP’s goal was to be “great stewards” of these public dollars, while getting Austin closer to its transportation vision. He said the new design options are just the first step.

“What the voters did was think out into the future. Not only will all of those funds help build the system, it will help operate the system. That was really the unique thing that Austin voters did, in comparison to anywhere in the United States,” he said.

KXAN investigators took a closer look at ATP’s budget documents, finding an operating budget of around $90 million dollars for the latest fiscal year. The group also planned to spend $50 million in capital funds on the light rail project, specifically — using money appropriated in previous years.

This capital funding pays for ongoing and future contracts with outside companies for preliminary engineering work, project management and other services. For example, according to the budget documents, one of those contractors helps ATP staff manage the program, provides analysis on national environmental compliance, and assists with securing federal funding or the project.

ATP’s budget also funds 87 full-time employees.

This budget passed unanimously at the September meeting, but not before at least one board member raised concerns about planning to spend tens of millions of dollars on payroll and consultants this early in the project. These concerns were voiced amid continued conversations about the skyrocketing cost of the light rail system.

ATP originally announced a cost estimate of $5.8 billion for the light rail system, but by April 2022, that jumped to $10.3 billion, due to the rising prices of acquiring land, construction costs and design changes. At the time, the group paused the light rail project to evaluate these changes and the overall cost, before putting out more design options.

At the community meeting on Tuesday, Canally estimated each of the five new light rail design options to cost around $5 billion — closer to the original estimate for the light rail system.

When asked about the money spent, so far, on the light rail project, Canally emphasized the amount of work leading up to these proposed designs.

“We budgeted to advance all of the work you see today — not only our staff of expertise, but our consultants of expertise, to make sure these options that you see today have been vetted from an engineering perspective, from a planning perspective, and are rooted in data, and are rooted in financial responsibility,” he said.

Following community feedback on the five proposals, Canally said ATP will recommend a final version by June. He said each of these options have, in total, a timeline of nine to 10 years to be completed.