A subway in Austin? City leaders explore massive transit expansion

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — After months of speculation and rumors, officials Tuesday offered a glimpse at a massive transportation plan — which includes a downtown subway — aimed to usher in a new generation of transit for a growing city.

At a joint work session of Austin City Council and Capital Metro Board of directors discussed an update to Project Connect, a plan to create high-capacity transit in the Austin area.

For the first time publicly, they explained which transit options are on the table — light rail included — and how they might pay for those options.

The transit plans these groups are looking at range from $3.2-$10.2 billion, depending on the features they select. CapMetro explained they believe they can pay for 40% of this amount through federal grants.

Proposed plans for light rail throughout Austin from CapMetro. The agency and city officials met today to discuss the plans. Courtesy of CapMetro
Proposed plans for light rail throughout Austin from CapMetro. The agency and city officials met Tuesday to discuss the plans. Courtesy of CapMetro

The city is looking at other options for how to foot the bill for the remaining 60%. City staff explained to KXAN that all their main options for doing so include putting this transit funding plan to a public vote in November.

One option for a public vote to pay for this plan could be a transportation bond election, as the city has attempted before. Another option the city is now looking at would be a tax rate election.

CapMetro explained that one of the requirements in order to get the federal dollars they want for Project Connect will be to have the remaining 60% of that funding approved and committed.

CapMetro has been analyzing the Orange and Blue lines (the Orange line would carry people from north at Tech Ridge to south at Slaughter and the Blue line would carry people from the airport to downtown Austin and to ACC Highland). They have been looking at two potential options for those lines: bus rapid transit and light rail transit. Now, CapMetro reports that they have found that relying on only bus rapid transit would leave the system at capacity by 2040. They have completed their analysis on bus rapid transit but are still analyzing the light rail rapid transit option.

Cap Metro has been looking at two potential options for those lines: bus rapid transit and light rail transit. Now, CapMetro reports that they have found that relying on only bus rapid transit would leave the system at capacity by 2040. Graphics from CapMetro PDF.

A light rail rapid transit plan could come with the potential for a downtown subway, which CapMetro explained would separate transit from bikes and cars but would also be more expensive.

CapMetro staff explained that a downtown tunnel would likely go 1.6 miles along 4th Street between Trinity and Guadalupe.

A chart from CapMetro of potential costs for potential transit plan scenarios. BRT stands for “Bus Rapid Transit” and LRT stands for “Light Rail Transit.” BRT and LRT are the two major paths Cap Metro has been analyzing.

Neither city staff nor CapMetro is recommending any particular options or funding solutions at this point, they are simply putting all the choices out on the table for local leaders. CapMetro and Austin City Council are expected to finalize their recommendations for which way to go by March of 2020.

CapMetro says their board and Austin City Council will have to make a decision by May about which plan they are going to call for and how they will attempt to pay for it.

David Couch, the Program Officer for Project Connect for CapMetro explained that how long it takes to get these projects built depends on which options the local leaders select. Couch said that including the necessary environmental assessments, it could take five to seven years to build-out any changes that are approved.

Why now?

CapMetro says they have seen increased ridership on their system for fifteen straight months. They say, as a result, parts of their system are having issues due to the high demand. CapMetro believes Austin will need to dramatically expand transit options to meet the needs of the expected population growth in the area.

“It can have a negative impact on the economy if you don’t have the kind of transportation in place for people to go in and utilize,” Couch said.

He added that CapMetro believes this plan would offer environmental benefits for the region.

“The base premise is that everything would be electric,” he said, noting that adding this transit is expected to decrease the number of vehicles on the road.

While Couch said there are other options down the line that might allow for incremental additions that could lead to a downtown subway, he suggested that a massive transportation plan is the most likely way to make the subway a reality.

“You want to build it once and do it right the first time,” he said.

Wade Cooper, the CapMetro Board Chair, mentioned the research which showed just going with bus rail transit by itself in Austin would leave the transit system at capacity in twenty years.

“There have been people telling us for years we need to build more roads,” he said, “but the studies are telling us today that a state-of-the-art bus system would be maxed out by 2040.”

“For me, I don’t have a career as an elected official ahead of me, for me, the only guiding point is trying to do the right thing,” Cooper continued.

He acknowledged that the “elephant in the room” with this transit plan will be figuring out the best way to finance it.

So far, Austin City Council members who spoke with KXAN said they feel that this political moment is the time where the city needs to make fundamental transportation changes.

“This is the moment and the opportunity to actually change our future to change our future in a big generational, once in a generation kind of way,” said Austin Mayor Steve Adler. “If we don’t do it, then quite frankly I don’t want to hear people complaining about congestion over the next twenty years, because now is the time if we are serious about doing something, that we can do something.” 

Austin Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza explained that this is her sixth year on Austin’s council and that affordable housing and traffic congestion have been the top issues over that period of time.

“We cannot address those issues, either one of them really, if we do not have a transformational change on how we do transit here in Austin Texas,” Garza said. “Unfortunately, we do not get the federal funding, we do not get the state funding, the other entities [around the country] get.”

Garza said that she and others on the council as well as CapMetro’s board have been looking to other governments to see how they have been able to pass large plans to fund regional transit.

“Unfortunately, it’s not as easy here in Texas and it’s important that everybody knows that it’s going to be an investment, [and] that investment will bring, I think, some great things for our city,” she said.

Austin City Council Member Ann Kitchen explained that she plans on hearing out all the possibilities on the table before she weighs in on which would be best. She is also hoping to hear from her constituents about what they think regarding the transit plan.

Like Garza and Adler, she feels 2020 is the time to make fundamental changes to the way people get around in Austin.

“We are simply out of options not moving forward,” she said. “Our traffic is just going to get worse and just costs more.”

“And I think we’re past due to have a system that works so that we can give people real choices for how they get around, to really help us address congestion, and also help us to address climate change going into the future,” Kitchen continued.

The latest in a series of pushes for transit change

CapMetro explained to KXAN that while some Austin elections related to specific rail lines have failed in the past, this current transit plan is the first one voters will weigh in on that addresses an entire rail system. 

In 2016, Austin voters did approve a $720 million mobility bond to improve roads. 

An earlier effort was not as successful, “proposition one,” in 2014 which included $600 million for a nine-mile rail line and $400 million for roads was rejected by Austin voters. 

For more context about this history, look at this KUT report from 2014 which references a rail plan in 2000 which was also narrowly rejected by Austin voters.

They payment options

A CapMetro Long Term Vision Plan rendering of future transit options. Image Courtesy CapMetro PDF Feb 27, 2019.

A transportation bond is likely the funding plan Austin voters will be most familiar with.

There have been murmurings in the Austin political scene of a large transportation bond going before voters in November. In fact, Transit for Austin launched in the fall of 2019 with the express purpose of pitching a large November 2020 bond effort which would encompass bus lines, rail lines and transit lines. Additionally, a group of Austin activists has already floated a plan for how they would like to see a 2020 transportation bond play out.

This week, local leaders are publically mentioning the new possibility of having a tax rate election instead of a bond.

“We know the city has some important funding sources and most importantly our current tax rate,” said Greg Canally, Deputy Financial Officer for the city.

Canally said that a tax rate election would allow for a dedicated funding stream that would help invest in the whole project.

At this point, city staff isn’t recommending the tax rate election over the transportation bond election, it will be up to local leaders to weigh the pros and cons.

Regardless of which option is selected, Canally said, “we think it’s the right thing to do, is to go to the voters.”

A timeline for Project Connect presented at the Joint Work Session of Austin City Council and CapMetro on January 14. CapMetro PDF.

What happens next

“We have spent the better part of the year exploring alternatives and projects, and now it’s time to start talking about how we put this into action and how we pay for it,” said Jackie Nirenberg, CapMetro’s community engagement manager, told KXAN.

Nirenberg explained that CapMetro’s community outreach will continue. Already, the agency says they have reached over 25,000 people to hear their thoughts about this project and around 5,000 have weighed in since October 30, 2019. In January and February, CapMetro is planning to host community education and group presentations to talk about the transit options.

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